Steve James is the veteran director of Chicago-based documentaries “Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself,” “The Interrupters” and the forthcoming 10-part docu-series, “America to Me.” But his first Oscar nomination for greatest documentary has include a movie set in the Chinese immigrant group of New York.
James’s PBS Frontline movie “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” follows the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, run by the Sung household, as it’s indicted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s workplace on fraud fees related to the 2008 financial crisis. The bank held one of the nation’s lowest default charges, and its founder, Thomas Sung, the household patriarch, subjected its mortgage practices to rigorous testing and requirements.
But in 2009, a mortgage officer named Ken Yu was discovered to have falsified paperwork and accepted bribes by debtors, setting off the Sungs’ suspicions. He was promptly fired, and the Sungs — Thomas’s daughters Jill and Vera assist run the bank — reported the incident to Fannie Mae, referred the case to the FBI and employed an investigator to root out any extra wrongdoing.
The Sungs’ actions resulted in an investigation of the bank itself, and its leaders. In 2012, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. indicted Abacus on costs of a scheme to falsify mortgage purposes to Fannie Mae, and subjected the Sungs and their staff to a public “chain gang,” pressured to stroll into the courtroom handcuffed in entrance of the cameras. Abacus stays the only U.S. bank to have been prosecuted in connection to the 2008 financial crisis.
The documentary follows the occasions of the trial, and consists of interviews with legal professionals from the prosecution and protection, jurors, journalists, and most of all, the Sungs themselves. James talked with MarketWatch about “Abacus.”
This movie and its topic appears to be a departure for you. How did you become involved with the challenge?
I obtained concerned as a result of producer Mark Mitten had recognized the household for a decade and is pals with them. They talked to him about what was occurring and this trial that they have been going to go to, they usually couldn’t consider it. Mark began to look into it and realized they have been the only bank being criminally prosecuted related to the 2008 financial crisis, which [District Attorney Cyrus] Vance clearly related it to and steadfastly maintains in the present day. Mark referred to as me and advised me the broad particulars of what had occurred — how they found the fraud themselves and cooperated, and that is what they have been rewarded with, the prosecution. That alone was intriguing and nobody was masking it. The New York Times, even The Wall Street Journal wasn’t overlaying it. There was an occasional article right here and there throughout the three years between the indictment and the finish of the trial, so it appeared fairly necessary.
When I went to New York to movie the household, I used to be simply actually taken with them. I believed them to be individuals of precept and braveness and integrity. That got here via for me loud and clear, they usually weren’t afraid of having us inform their story. They felt strongly they have been harmless, even once we stated we might make an actual effort to current the case towards them if we might get cooperation from the DA’s workplace. It got here after the trial and we have been in a position to embrace that all through the entire movie.
A startling second is when the Sungs and their staff are subjected to a perp stroll. Why have been they pressured to do it?
I feel once you take a look at that indictment, it was designed to appeal to the press and be a spectacle. It started with Vance standing earlier than the reporters. He had all these federal investigators from D.C. who had investigated the fraud with the massive banks, as if to say, “Here we are. Now we’re bringing someone to justice.” That was clearly orchestrated they usually got here up from Washington to be half of that press convention. The stroll itself was designed to paint this as a critical case of fraud, “Look at all these people chained together, there must be something terrible here.” They confirmed a profound lack of sensitivity to these individuals, and to the Chinese group. These will not be individuals charged with harmful crimes. They have been no hazard to anybody. There was no level in it apart from spectacle and making an attempt to make an influence. Which he did. He additionally made an impression in the Chinese group who checked out that and thought, “what is going on here?”
Do you assume Cyrus Vance’s workplace was racist in singling out a Chinese bank that served the native Chinese group, and subjecting them to that perp stroll?
I feel there was a excessive degree of racial insensitivity. I don’t assume they thought that’s what they have been doing. I don’t assume they have been brazenly racist and discriminatory towards the Chinese group, however their actions have been. The perp stroll was. The means they carried out the trial, they actually tried to paint each the debtors and mortgage officers as scheming, making an attempt to scheme their method into these mortgages and loans. When they speak about the present letters, they make it sound like the present letters are a complete fraud. They’re not. What I got here to perceive is in Chinese tradition, and greater than Chinese, households giving cash to assist purchase a enterprise or a house shouldn’t be that unusual. My mother and father gave me cash for my down cost, I assume they gave me a present letter in a way. The concept was I might pay them, which I by no means did they usually knew that. If you possibly can, nice. If you possibly can’t, you’re household. But the prosecution tried to paint these as this effort to recreation the system. It’s not what was happening there. They weren’t focused on the cultural variations of the group, or realities of the immigrant expertise on this nation the place teams are gaining their foothold on their approach to being full-fledged Americans. They have been only all in favour of what they perceived to be fraud, which was principally low-level, with the exception of Ken Yu. He was an outlier. That’s why he was a star witness, he was the most excessive instance and he advised lies to the DA workplace, went on the stand and advised the similar lies and obtained caught.
Do you assume Vance’s actions have been motivated by political causes?
It’s an elected workplace and I feel he clearly needed to be in a position to say that he had been the DA’s workplace that introduced a bank to justice related to 2008. I don’t assume there’s any query he needed to do this. It’s additionally revealed in the movie that massive banks might pay giant fines after we bailed them out. What Vance provided Abacus was not to pay a advantageous and have it go away. He says that they had to plea to a felony, which for all functions would have put them out of enterprise. Abacus couldn’t have survived on a felony conviction as a result of Fannie Mae would by no means work with them once more — they work with Fannie Mae lots, the alleged sufferer. That was revealing of what Vance needs. He didn’t need them to pay a nice like the massive banks do. He needed a conviction. The Sungs weren’t an enormous bank. If they have been provided a nonprosecution settlement I feel they might have taken it to keep away from all that, which is the method it really works in America. People plead to keep away from worse outcomes, even once they’re harmless.
And in contrast to the ‘too big to fail’ banks, Abacus didn’t get any bailout cash.
I want we obtained that in. Abacus didn’t want any bailout cash as a result of they didn’t do any of that. They had alternatives to get in on credit score default swaps and people poisonous mortgage packages. They received introduced with these and Mr. Sung was like “no, no we’re not going to do that.” They actively selected not to be concerned in any of that stuff, they usually might have been in the event that they needed to do to make a fast buck, however that’s not what they have been about.
Did you sit in on the trial, even once you couldn’t movie?
We didn’t sit in fairly often for a really sensible purpose: We had to do that on an actual finances. We had to get our method by way of the trial half, we didn’t have [documentary film funder] ITVS and Frontline till later, and we have been Chicago-based filmmakers coming to New York. We had to decide and select once we might come and we picked days whereas they have been in trial to do different stuff – to do an interview, or movie in Chinatown. It was going to be irritating to sit there and never be in a position to movie the trial. We employed a courtroom artist named Christine Cornell to do illustrations that we expanded on tremendously in the modifying to convey these moments to life.
What was your finances for ‘Abacus’?
The price range was one thing like $650,000. We filmed for about 25 days throughout the course of the trial and the aftermath. We had 100 hours of footage.
Is that price range comparatively low?
For my movies it’s. When I’m capturing in Chicago, I’ve the freedom to exit and shoot that I don’t have right here. Here, I’ve to fly to New York, keep in a lodge, then exit and shoot.
Tell me extra about the way you directed the courtroom artist, as a result of her illustrations make up the bulk of the trial part of the movie.
We had her go in for a quantity of days and she or he did a quantity of drawings to set up the look. Normally, the artist sits in a single seat and diagrams all the things from there, so that you see the again of legal professionals’ heads so much. They don’t allow you to rise up and transfer round for a greater angle.
We storyboarded this such as you would a film, so as soon as she had the basis, she was in a position to work with us. We’d say, “we want to visualize this testimony,” or “when the Sungs’ lawyer is cross-examining Ken Yu, we want to look into the lawyer’s face and Ken Yu’s face.” She labored with pictures we had of our principal individuals, and she or he labored with illustrations from the case. She rotated and acquired the again of the courtroom — usually you wouldn’t draw behind you. We knew we’d need her to do extra so she simply established a superb foundation that we then might increase. It’s as a result of she’s so gifted she was in a position to storyboard it the place it’s so detailed about what every shot would be in the sequence. We did one thing akin to that together with her in publish. This was a movie made on an actual finances. If we had actual cash we might have taken her stuff and animated it.
Was there anybody you needed to interview however couldn’t?
Ken Yu. I so needed Ken Yu. We reached out to him and he simply declined.
It was fascinating to pay attention to the juror who says she voted responsible.
Once we obtained by way of the trial and noticed they have been a deadlocked jury and had to work by way of that, we set about making an attempt to get jurors in the movie. We had this nice co-producer named Nick Verbitsky. Once the trial was over, he appeared for the jurors and reached out to each single one of them. He would go to the bar the place one labored as a bartender. Eight have been for not responsible, however even they didn’t need to [speak]. We have been lucky to get Jessica and Roman, who represented each side. Jessica was a key member of the holdout. When she turned, the relaxation of them turned. She was a terrific interview.
Mrs. Sung shares how ashamed she felt throughout the trial, even when the household was harmless. She could be very open about feeling she “lost face.” Instead of retreating privately, the Sungs are strikingly trustworthy in the interviews.
Mark’s relationship to the Sungs helped — he knew them for a decade. Other issues that helped have been they have been in the midst of this actually intense, scary trial. So a lot of their power was targeted on that, that it made it simpler to not fret over our capturing them. They ended up being stunned, once they noticed the movie, by their household dynamic. To see it in a movie was totally different and Vera says, “I didn’t realize how often I cut off Chanterelle.” She’s made extra of an effort to not do this anymore. This occurs lots in my docs, your topics find yourself being stunned at simply how revealing and the way candid they’ve been. It’s not that they overlook the digital camera, it’s that they get very snug with us so it feels okay to be themselves. That’s why these relationships are actually essential. They take pleasure in your organization. I’ve executed some critical movies and had a lot enjoyable and laughter with the topics — not when one thing critical is occurring, however it’s not like they by no means laughed or discovered occasions to be humorous or make enjoyable of one another.