'Small Enough to Jail': Steve James documents the troubling fraud case against Abacus Savings Bank

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At the height of the 2008 financial crisis, some expressed real fear that the entire economy might crash. Was the collapse of Lehman Brothers, once thought "too big to fail," an omen? Would a housing bubble burst due to subprime mortgages?

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, opening in theatres tomorrow from PBS Distribution, takes an intriguing alternate route into the crisis by focusing on the family behind a small bank indicted for mortgage fraud. Directed by Steve James, it's a smart, concise and deeply troubling look at winners and losers in a flawed system.

When the economy did pull through, thanks in part to TARP incentives, it was time to point fingers. Who approved the mortgages that almost crippled the country? Who oversaw the sea of junk debt that passed from institution to institution?

As abuses emerged, major financial concerns were fined, costs that were ultimately passed on to consumers and shareholders. Big banks who figured into the crisis could wash their hands and move on with impunity.

Not so with New York City's Abacus Federal Savings Bank, formed in 1984 by Chinese-American business leaders to serve a largely neglected community. In 2012 it became the only bank in the United States to be prosecuted for mortgage fraud.

James heard about the case through producer Mark Mitten, a friend of Abacus director Vera Sung. A mention in journalist Matt Taibbi's book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of Wealth helped convince James to contact Sung and the rest of her family.

Vera's father Thomas Sung, a lawyer and co-founder of the bank, acted as its chairman. Vera's sister Jill was president and CEO. During the course of filming, they were joined by another sister, Chanterelle, previously an assistant district attorney.

James built his reputation with movies like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, uncommonly deep and incisive character studies that can stretch out over years. In an interview before the documentary's opening, James agrees that Abacus was not like his other works.

"This is a different kind of film for me," he says. "But my last film, Life Itself, a biography of a famous person, Roger Ebert, was also something I had never done before. We didn't know we would be filming the last months of his life, but it turned out to be that. The way in which Roger and his wife Chaz dealt with that inevitability is to me the heart of the film."

For James, it wasn't so much the legal case, the courtroom drama, that drew him to Abacus as it was the Sung family. Passionate, articulate, determined to fight what they believe are false accusations, the Sungs, including wife and mother Hwei Lin, are compelling figures, underdogs caught a system that needed scapegoats.

"Once I met the family and did some filming with them, I was hooked," James recalls. "Who they were, how interesting they were, how courageous. I liked the idea of spending time with them, get to know them, see how they cope and deal with adversity."

"Our family had initial reservations about being filmed for a potential documentary, but we all felt that the story needed to be told, regardless of the outcome of the trial," the Sungs wrote in an e-mail. "Too much injustice had already been committed along the way, throughout this five-year prosecution. It also helped that some of us had seen his prior films such as Hoop Dreams and Life Itself, and as such we trusted Steve to tell our story objectively and accurately."

James points out one more troubling aspect of the Sungs' problems: They played by the rules. They did what they were supposed to do. When they detected mortgage fraud within their bank, they took their findings to federal authorities, not realizing that they would become targets of indictments issued by the New York City District Attorney’s Office.

James went into the project unsure of exactly what he would be permitted to film. It turned out he was not allowed to shoot in the courtroom; what's more, both the prosecution and defense lawyers refused to cooperate.

In lieu of trial access, the filmmakers hired courtroom illustrator Christine Cornell, who got to expand on her traditional pieces by working in different parts of the room. James compared her drawings to storyboards, complete with over-the-shoulder angles for dramatic emphasis.

Once the trial was finished, PBS’ “Frontline” became involved with the project. James had partnered with them before, on The Interrupters, and says their participation changed Abacus. "Suddenly we weren't just independent filmmakers trying to make a film about this situation, we were ‘Frontline,’” James explains. "That meant not only the respect for that brand, but also the fear. Choosing not to cooperate with a ‘Frontline’ documentary is different from choosing not to cooperate with some independent filmmaker from Chicago."

Co-producer Nick Verbitsky, part of the “Frontline” contingent, secured interviews with two key jurors. Cyrus Vance, Jr., district attorney for New York County, agreed to speak about the trial on camera. So did Polly Greenberg, chief of the Major Economic Crimes Bureau in the DA's office. James credits Mark Mitten with suggesting Neil Barofksy, former head of mortgage fraud at the U.S. Attorney’s office. "With his background in TARP, Neil's voice is crucial in letting the audience step back and look at this case in a larger scale."

But what Abacus does best is find a way to personalize a complex problem. James and his crew manage to highlight the individual personalities of each family member, show how they respond to testimony in court, to media coverage, to their own lawyers' strategies. At times the Sungs talk over each other, pressing to make their points.

"You have to have good camera people," James says, laughing about scenes bordering on chaos that unfold in restaurants and offices. "There's a wonderful moment late in the movie where Chanterelle is trying to make a point, and she keeps starting over and over and over, and no one's listening to her. [Cinematographer] Tom Bergman did a fabulous job of hanging on her face for that entire rant instead of trying to go around and cover everyone else speaking."

James also points out how heavily he relies on sound to capture complicated situations, like a dinner in the middle of the Hop Lee restaurant. "Because you're not going to get everything on camera, sound is vitally important in a scene like that," he says. "Through the mix and cutting you can feel like you get to see what you need to follow the chaos of the family. That was one of the delightful aspects of them, that they are all such strong personalities and argumentative."

"We had more reservations about the thought of being filmed than we actually felt once the team began filming us," the Sungs wrote. "At first, each of us to varying degrees felt concerned about being filmed because we wanted to stay focused on the trial at hand, did not want anything to negatively influence its outcome, felt camera-shy, and wanted to maintain our privacy.

"To Steve's credit, once we met him, we felt very comfortable in opening up to him and sharing our story. As a testament to Steve and his team, we quickly came to feel that we could trust them. In fact, it was to a certain extent comforting to have them there, because we felt that they were at least an open ear to what we were fighting every day."

Like a good courtroom thriller, Abacus is filled with twists—surprise witnesses, unexpected testimony, battling lawyers, puzzling evidence. James and his editors struggled with what to reveal, what to hold back in their narrative. "We thought a lot about how we wanted to lay the case out for the viewer," James says. "We debated about how much to reveal early versus later in the film. We decided that if you reveal it all earlier, it almost could make the particulars of the fraud seem moot. Why are we even learning about this?"

James says that when he showed an earlier edit to colleagues, they couldn't understand why the Sungs were being persecuted. Or why jury deliberations lasted ten days.

"So that's why we decided to start smaller and then step back," he explains. "Because we also felt it was the best way to present the case against the Sungs. To really let you see, okay, the prosecution's saying this kind of thing went on, and here's the defense's response to that."

James says his next project is a miniseries on public schools in the Oak Park neighborhood of Chicago. "It's a great system which still has failed its black students in significant ways for decades," he notes. "And none of the usual reasons apply. It's well-funded, it's an extremely liberal place, there's no abject poverty, and there's no gang violence. So what's going on? We were able to get permission to film in the school for a year and follow a bunch of kids and teachers."

The Sungs note how happy they are with the Small Enough to Jail. "The film has restored our faith. It has restored our family's 'face,' which in Chinese culture and history refers to honor. It has given back our voice that we had lost for five years during the prosecution of this case. It has given us the ability to share this story with far more people than we had ever hoped or imagined."

But as Chinatown activist Don Lee points out in the documentary, the Sungs still must cope with some $10 million in legal fees, as well as significant loss of income during the trial. It's yet another injustice that should never have occurred.