Not many people started their feature film careers by making my favorite movie of all time, but not all people are Steve James. Following the seminal Hoop Dreams, James spent some time in the scripted realm before rocketing back to the top of the non-fiction scene with the intimate and disturbing Stevie. Since then he has earned a reputation as one of the most consistent and insightful documentarians working, with a body of work ranging widely in both form and content.
His latest film, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail details the plight of Abacus Community bank and the family who runs it, led by father and founder Thomas Sung. Somehow, though JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo and all the others eluded prosecution in the wake of 2008’s financial crisis, the New York District Attorney’s office found Abacus, which almost exclusively serves Chinatown’s unique immigrant community, to be the one financial institution worthy of their concentrated efforts.
Mr. James was kind enough to endure my fanaticism and humor me with an interview to discuss Abacus when he and the film were in town in March for this year’s CAAMFest.
Arlin Golden for Film Inquiry: I’ve heard you say in the past that each documentary is a gamble, for Abacus what did you feel was the risk in taking on that story?
Steve James: Well, I entered into doing this film through a friend of the family, Mark Mitten, who is a producer on the film and worked with me on Life Itself, who’s friends with the family. That’s how we found out about the story, because it wasn’t being written about. And so the fact that my entry into the story was through a friend of 10 years of the family makes me a little nervous when you’re talking about a trial, right?
And so one of the things that we had to be really clear with the family about is that even though, you know I think the film makes clear pretty much from the beginning that we’re in their corner, we’re telling their story through their eyes, I also had to make clear to them that we were going to do everything in our power to articulate the case against them and that they would have to understand that if this ultimately went against them in terms of the verdict, that we still needed to show that, that the film would still be made, you know? I don’t want to talk about how the film turns out, because I think that’s part of the pleasure of watching it, but I think that they had to understand that, no matter which way this would go.
So it’s kind of less of a gamble for me in some ways, I think it’s more of a gamble for them. They had to decide that they were willing to take that leap and put their story out there.
Did that take any convincing on your part, or were they pretty much on board from the beginning?
Steve James: No, I mean, they were nervous about it all. I think that they…when we made it clear that we were avidly pursuing the prosecution, we eventually prevailed and got prosecution voices into the film, which was great for the film, I think all that made them nervous, as it would anyone, because they can’t control any of this.
I’ve discovered over the years that, for me, the bravest thing that subjects do is letting us into their lives that way. It’s such a leap of faith, and in this case, with so much on the line for them…but they believe so much in their innocence that they were willing to take that chance.
I’ve discovered over the years that, for me, the bravest thing that subjects do is letting us into their lives that way.
Since you mentioned the uncertainty and trying to present the prosecution’s arguments as well, what do you personally feel…because I think the film…DA Vance, he makes a lot of assertions, his ADA seems defiant still to this day, what’s your take on their motivations for prosecuting Abacus?
Steve James: I think they would tell you that they saw wrongdoing that they thought was systematic, and to this day feel it was systematic, and so they went after just doing their job, right? I mean, that’s what they would tell you. I think the film’s point of view is a little different. I do believe that they truly believe that there was wrongdoing and they were rightfully prosecuting a case.
But I also feel like part of what went into that equation was a belief that this bank…that they could make a statement about being the first office to criminally prosecute an American bank in the wake of the 2008 crisis. That that would be a significant accomplishment. I think that entered into the equation. I think that spectacle of the indictment where they chained together a number of ex-employees and current employees, low-level loan officers, chained together as if they were hardened criminals, and paraded them down the hallway for the press speaks to other motivations than simply justice, right?
Absolutely. And that’s still even though Abacus wasn’t involved in these mortgage backed security practices, it was sort of just tangential with home loans…
Steve James: Yeah, I mean, Abacus, in many many respects is the mirror opposite of the big banks in the crisis. They wilfully stayed away from all of those crazy schemes that the big banks were doing during the mortgage crisis; they looked at them and saw them for what they were: scams. And they declined to participate in any of that. So when the mortgage crisis hit the banking industry, Abacus didn’t really fell that hit, because their loans were solid.
This isn’t really in the film but Abacus has 1/120th the national average of mortgage defaults. 1/120th. (laughs) So, you know, of course they discovered fraud and reported it. As the film makes clear, the only reason the DA’s office even knew about fraud was as a result of Abacus taking steps to root out fraud in their own institution. So, you know, in so many ways they’re the mirror opposite, and of course they’re the mirror opposite in size. They are the 2,651st largest bank in the United States, they have assets that are 1/1000th of a percent of Citibank, so, you know, mirror opposites.
Do you think that DA kind of saw this as a slam dunk for them?
Steve James: I think that they thought they had a very rock solid case. I would bet that on some level they thought that the bank would fold and not go to trial, because that’s usually what happens, people strike deals. Part of the reason the big banks weren’t criminally indicted is is that the federal government offered them fines instead of indictment and they readily took it.
And that’s another interesting thing about this case, is that Abacus wasn’t even offered that option. In other words they weren’t offered the option of no criminal indictment, no felony, in exchange for a fine for the fraud that was going on. They were told “you have to accept the felony, you have to accept guilt, AND pay a fine.” And that would’ve destroyed the bank.
It’s mind-boggling for sure. So with this film, and also previously with Life Itself, I’m wondering what the difference in approach is when part of the story has already been written before you get involved, as opposed to something like Hoop Dreams or The Interrupters, where you’re writing the story as you film it.
Steve James: Right. Yeah, both Life Itself and Abacus are very different films from The Interrupters or Hoop Dreams, although there are some similarities too. The difference is, in one, in the case of Life Itself, it’s a biography, so a big part of the pleasure and obligation of that film was to tell you Roger Ebert‘s life story. But at the same time I was fascinated with, I was very fascinated with, how he lived his life today, in the time that we filmed.
Because I feel like if you can follow people around in any context in any period of time, it is a window into who they really are in a way that just interviewing people about them, or consulting archival footage from the shows in the past yields one kinda of insight, but being in their presence…And of course when we started Life Itself we had no idea that it would end up being the last four months of Roger’s life, so that ended up being obviously a very pivotal and crucial four months of his life that we we’re able to capture. So that film kind of goes back and forth between life in the present told in a more verité fashion, and a biography.
And with Abacus, you know, the hurdles there were that we weren’t allowed to be in the courtroom to film, during the trial we did not have access to the prosecution at all. So we had to kind of tell the story through the eyes of the family outside of court, and then find a way to convey what was going on for them inside the courtroom, and, you know, I think we came up with a solution to that.
Most of the films I’ve done over the years, either purposefully, or as it just turned out to be, I am following people at a crucial crossroads in their life.
But in all the films I do, if I can, I want to find some immediacy of following people at a crucial moment in their lives. Most of the films I’ve done over the years, either purposefully, or as it just turned out to be, I am following people at a crucial crossroads in their life. And that was true of the Abacus film, it was true of Life Itself, it’s true of The Interrupters and Hoop Dreams.
So you want the immediacy of hanging out with the people and following their lives. In this film in particular, you almost have a plurality of subjects. It’s not Vera, it’s not Thom; it’s the family, it’s the Sungs. How did you approach that? In deciding who to focus on when, who to follow when…no one really seems to outshine anyone else.
Steve James: Yes, that’s really good, I’m glad that you feel that way because when I met the family I was taken with all of them, both individually and collectively. They are a unique group of people, Vera and Jill are very different from each other, So is Chanterelle…So they all have very distinct personalities. Thomas Sung, his wife, Mrs. Sung, who kind of steals the movie in a lot of ways, she’s so funny. So they all have very distinct personalities, but they also are this incredible family together, and we really wanted to capture that.
Now obviously, with Mr. Sung, he’s the patriarch, and he’s who started the bank, so he has a kind of privileged position, if you will, vis-a-vis this bank because it was his bank, his baby, he started it, and he brought his daughters in now to sort of maintain the legacy. But they were just such a lovely family, and part of what’s so lovely about them is that they are all so strong willed. They all have very strong views and opinions and they are not shy about expressing it.
And I think that when people hear about this film, or the broad strokes of what this film’s about – a lot of people have told me this after they’ve seen it – they don’t expect it to be as entertaining and, actually, humorous, as it is. Because when you think about…here’s a family, going through this terrible ordeal that threatens their very existence as a bank, you don’t think of it as having humor in it. But this family, they have such a great sense of humor and such a sense of comradery and grace that I think shines through throughout this ordeal that it is a surprise for people coming to watch the film.
I would imagine you would have to, being under such stress!
Steve James: (Laughs) Yes. I mean something that’s often forgotten, maybe sometimes too often forgotten in documentaries, when people go to make documentaries, is that humor is, and I have found this over the years, you know, in a lot of my films, I like to think that there’s a lot of humor in a lot of the films that I’ve made.
I think so.
Steve James: Even though they’re always about very serious topics. Humor is the way in which we cope with stress, we cope with challenges, we cope with the difficulties of life. Humor becomes the way to deal with that. So I’m always looking to preserve and show that humor in those moments in the films that I make.
Humor is the way in which we cope with stress, we cope with challenges, we cope with the difficulties of life.
I think that that’s true amongst documentaries, but your films in particular, the humor is always there to make that immediate connection with the subject. I think your films often are about very macro issues, but specifically told in a very micro story that can be extrapolated to socio-economics and all these other issues. You know, those human moments, are what really make the difference for me.
Steve James: Well thank you.
I’m wondering at which point it became clear, and maybe it was from the beginning…the collaboration with Frontline, and if knowing that this is eventually going to end up on TV for PBS, if that frames the way you frame the film at all?
Steve James: Right. Frontline was interested in the film at some of the later stages of production, so most of what had been shot had been shot before Frontline became involved. But we were still doing some interviews and some filming when their interests became clear and we liked the idea of partnering with them. I think where Frontline really impacted the film more than anywhere…two areas. One is, as we were editing the film we engaged in Frontline‘s vetting process, which is really amazing.
Because they’re a journalistic news show that’s won boatloads of Emmys, they take very seriously what they do as journalism, and nobody’s better. So the vetting that we went through with their lawyer and with Raney Aronson, executive producer of Frontline, and her staff, really helped us to button up the verifying of what’s being said in the film and supporting it in a way that most documentary filmmakers, frankly, myself included, don’t engage in. Or can’t engage in, because they don’t have that at their disposal.
They kind of have to do what they can do. So that was a real contribution. The other real contribution was that Frontline…the imprimatur of Frontline and the involvement of one of their freelance producers, Nick Verbitsky, really helped us to get to the prosecution side, to get them into the film. That was a real…I think you could draw a straight line between Frontline being involved and us being successful in getting those folks into the film.
So that was a huge asset.
Steve James: Yeah. But it didn’t change our approach to telling the story. It didn’t affect like “oh, we have to do this differently than I would have done it.” That didn’t happen at all. And I think it’s to Frontline‘s credit that they don’t expect that. They want it to be journalistically sound, and they really appreciate the fact that we wanted so much to have the prosecution’s case laid out. You know, they sometimes feel like independent filmmakers are less interested in the other side of issues that they feel passionately about. So they appreciate that about us, but that was always, you know, in the plans.
That’s great. You know, I think, as opposed to some other documentarians, you’re very flexible from film to film in terms of your style or your ethic. Or there any, at all, sort of hard and fast rules that you hold to? Or is it just kind of what fits the story?
Steve James: (Laughs) Yeah, I mean I’m a filmmaker who wants to try different kinds of films. There’s a certain kind of documentary that I’ve made that people who haven’t seen much of my work probably think of as being the way I make films. You know, Interrupters and Hoops Dreams. Maybe if they saw Stevie…although Stevie’s different because it’s a personal film.
You were very involved in it.
Steve James: Right. But films that are very much rooted in observational approaches and verité approaches to storytelling. Truthfully, that is my favorite kind of filmmaking. But I love the idea of trying different approaches, and to me it comes down to what is the best way that I can think of, there’s probably better ways, but what’s the best way I can think of to try and tell this story?
You know, if I was only a verité filmmaker I would’ve never taken on telling Roger Ebert‘s life story, it would’ve maybe just been a film on his final months and that would’ve been the whole film. But that, to me, that would’ve been an interesting film in some ways, but I feel like it would’ve been a disservice to the man, to not put your arms around all of him.
Same is true with this film. I’ve never done anything where a court case is at the center of it, and it probably would’ve been smarter to pick a flamboyant murder trial (laughs). I’m glad I didn’t. But, you know what I mean, to me it’s always dictated by what is the best way that I can conceive to try and approach and tell a story and not root it in “oh, this is the kind of films I make only.”
Since you mentioned the sort of, you know, aspect that this a fraud case, a banking case, did you see that as a challenge at all –
Steve James: Yes!
– to sort of present that visually in an interesting way?
Steve James: Oh my god, yes. Yeah, it was a challenge. And you know, I hope we succeeded. One of the things we realized early on was that since we weren’t going to be in the courtroom, we started to think about “well, how are we going to visually convey what’s going on in the courtroom?” I don’t want to just do the shots of an empty courtroom, which, you know, I’ve seen done to good effect.
How are we going to visually convey what’s going on in the courtroom?
So that’s why we landed on this idea to have a real court room artist, who works a lot of big trials in New York, come in and spend a few days in the court room during the trial and make a bunch of sketches that then became the foundation for what we later did in editing.
So that was just for you guys?
Steve James: That was just for us. When you look at those sketches they go beyond the bounds of typical court room sketches, because you’re seeing angles you would never see from a court room artist. It’s more like storyboarding a movie versus sitting in the gallery and everything at one angle. So, you know, I felt like that would be a great way for us to try and do this, and I was really pleased with the work that Christine [Cornell] did, she did incredible work and really helped bring the trial to life.
But then, you know, we also had to wade through 7,000 pages of transcripts of the trial to figure out what moments were the most key and important. And again, I think because it’s a fraud/financial case, it is a challenge to present it in a way to an audience that allows them to kind of “get it”. It’s not easy. We tended towards testimony that we felt both illustrated it and also had some compelling qualities to it that wasn’t just dry testimony.
I’m sure this came up a lot at True/False [documentary festival, where Abacus had just screened a week prior], but your film in particular is a testament, you know, that the government is not the be all, end all, and that it is possible to fight. Given our historical moment, how are you re-evaluating your role as a documentarian? Or just the role of documentaries in general?
Steve James: Well, I’m not re-evaluating it, because I feel like…I don’t know.
You’re doing what you’ve always done.
Steve James: I feel like I’m just going to Keep On Keepin’ On, to quote a title from another documentary. I mean, I just feel like it’s important to keep telling true stories and try to do it in a way that doesn’t simplify them and make them…to me I’m not an “advocacy” filmmaker, but my films have a point of view, and I like to think that that point of view is earned through real inquiry and not through knee-jerk assumptions.
And there’s a lot of knee-jerk assumptions that go on in our world now politically, on both sides. But I think that we as a community just have to keep pressing forward to tell important stories, and the stories that aren’t getting told otherwise. And sometimes those aren’t overtly political. They can be profiles of just difficult people, that we need to learn about. But yeah, I think that we just have to keep pressing forward.
So there’s still truth?
Steve James: Yes, there’s truth! I mean, but truth is always…here’s the thing, there’s rarely if ever “one truth”, right? I mean, so when you’re a documentary filmmaker, and you go into a situation and you make a film, the truth you are expressing is the truth you observed. Another person, your subjects or another filmmaker, coming into that situation will no doubt walk away with some kind of different truth. it may not be profoundly different, but it might be!
Truth is subjective, but there’s a difference between subjective truth and flat out misrepresentation, and willful lying.
So truth is subjective, but there’s a difference between subjective truth and flat out misrepresentation, and willful lying. And we’re seeing a lot of that. You know, that’s not someone looking at a situation and grasping it in a different way, that’s someone looking at a situation and trying to manipulate it in a certain way. So yeah, I mean, it’s funny how the national media, and they should be careful about this, be careful about saying the president “lied”. It’s like, it’s “misrepresentation”… there’s all kinds of different verbs you can use other than “lying”. But sometimes a lie needs to be called a lie.
Definitely. Well, ok, Steve James, director of Abacus and so many other great films…I wouldn’t be doing anything I’m doing without you, so thank you so much for taking the time.
Steve James: Thank you, Arlin.
Abacus opens in New York at the IFC Center today (May 19) before expanding to more theaters in June.