Abacus: Small Enough to Jail plays on October 6 and October 7 as part of the spotlight on documentary within the 54th New York Film Festival. The movie is currently without distribution. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
When you hear Steve James’s name, what comes to mind? Probably Hoop Dreams, his justly lauded film about two Chicago kids and their families as they try to graduate high school. Or maybe The Interrupters, his 2011 documentary about a group of peace advocates dedicated to stopping violence on those same Chicago streets. Maybe you think about his segment of The New Americans about Nigerian refuges starting over in a new country. And what do those things have in common? Community. That is what James does and does well. Portraits of communities barely hanging together thanks to government indifference, poverty, unrest, malcontent and a thousand other factors. But the community stands. What James does not do well, on the evidence of his latest film, the limp investigative doc Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, is pretend he’s Errol Morris. James denies himself the street-level vantage point that lent the best of his early work its power in favor of borrowed (not to mention heavy-handed) grammatical flourishes. He’s acting confident but he looks lost.
In 2012, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance prosecuted the family-owned and -operated Abacus bank for fraud. Many felt that it was a symbolic strike against the banking industry at large after every major guilty party involved in the 2008 financial collapse returned to business as usual. The jurors evidently got the hint Vance was dropping; the deliberation was ground to a halt by a handful who believed letting Abacus off the hook sent the wrong message to Americans about the banking industry at large. Abacus bank was run by Thomas Sung and two of his four daughters. The Sungs have been a fixture in New York’s Chinatown since the bank was started in 1984, providing financial help for a community made up of immigrants that the bigger banks wouldn’t help. So when they were brought up on fraud charges, it looked like an even bigger betrayal than if they’d been a big, faceless corporation. Sung had been helping the diaspora find its feet in the fastest, loudest, most indifferent city in the western world. Taking them down meant tearing down one of the community’s pillars. James is quick to point out that the case against the Sungs is flimsy, and that the apparently fraudulent mortgages they sold to Fannie Mae, the basis of the trial, all wound up performing. Not to mention Fannie Mae had agreed to play ball with Abacus knowing that the demands of the Chinatown market would be different than they were used to dealing with. Add to that the apparently racist treatment of the bank employees by the DA’s office, that’s a real home run for the defense and the public face of the bank… so what was the point of making a film out of such an uncomplicated case?
James starts the film with clips from It’s A Wonderful Life (in the wrong aspect ratio, as if the reference itself weren’t offensive enough) to hammer home just how lovable Thomas Sung is. You can’t possibly hate someone we’re assured is the George Bailey of Chinatown, can you? James wouldn’t need to resort to convincing us if he’d just taken his camera to the people to whom Sung acted as financial support and asked them. They’re apparently all over Chinatown, if the talking heads are to be believed, they can’t have been that hard to track down and interview. Capturing the voice of a community is, after all, James’s strength, so why didn’t he bother looking for it here? Where are the people who would have been affected by the closure of the bank? Shots of the Sung family eating dinner are clearly where James felt most at home because he keeps repeating the motif, but the film can’t really move forward when it’s stuck to a lazy Susan. But that’s not all James is missing. Crucial bits of information are AWOL. What, for instance, do the Sung family think about their co-defendants, Yiu Wah Wong and Raymond Tam, who oversaw the loan department, and the employees who falsified documents that led to the case being thrown at Abacus in the first place? Who are all those employees handcuffed to Wong in the famous photos taken at the courthouse? Why not divulge Abacus’s first major scandal (a 2003 run following embezzlement charges against a manager) until two thirds of the way through the movie? Also missing: most of the footage James needed to make his case cinematically. He takes his patching trowel and covers the holes with photographs (star witness Ken Yu is shown in the same blurry picture a half-dozen times), courtroom drawings, footage of empty rooms, interviews with journalists, doors closing portentously, and all those scenes from It’s A Wonderful Life. That stylistic approach is the kind of thing Errol Morris built his career on, because he’s used to his subjects telling conflicting stories about events no one else witnessed, but James don’t surf. The biggest crime committed here wasn’t fraud but negligence. There just isn’t enough movie here and James knew it and went ahead anyway. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail might have worked as a 20 minute op-doc but as a feature it doesn’t add up to much.