Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, by Aaron Pinkston

18 Oct

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Steve James has made a career out of documenting the lives of the unfortunate and underserved, from those fighting gang activity on the most violent neighborhoods of Chicago to the young people in these same neighborhoods with little opportunity to escape. His new film, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, turns focus on a new protagonist, an unlikely one: a bank. With the public perception of corruption and gross misconduct on unimaginable scales, Abacus focuses on the only federal bank indicted in connection to the 2008 mortgage crisis. What seems like an impossible task, James puts the viewer firmly on their side in this complicated story of family and community.

Abacus opens with an elderly Asian couple watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Through voice-over, Thomas Sung describes how much he admires George Bailey for his commitment to his small community. We quickly learn Mr. Sung is also a banker, the founder of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which exclusively caters to the Chinese immigrant community in New York City, a group that Mr. Sung is himself a part. We’re told that historically, banks were happy to take deposits from Chinese immigrants, but members of the group were often denied loans because of their status, potentially for discriminatory reasons. And so Mr. Sung, already a successful lawyer living in the suburbs, decided to leave that world in order to have a great stake in his community. Over the years, Abacus became a true family company, as two of Mr. Sung’s daughters came to work as executives.

Following a series of events involving low-level loan officer employees creating falsified documents and showing increasingly poor judgement toward loan seekers, Jill and Vera Sung terminated the appropriate staff and notified the proper city and government officials of what was happening. According to their testimony, they were more than transparent, provided more documentation than necessary in order to show what had happened and how it would stop. Ultimately, after a 5-year investigation by the District Attorney’s office, Abacus was indicted on multiple counts of fraud, larceny, and other charges.

The case, as it is presented, is incredibly complicated for multiple reasons. First, though there was no evidence that senior bank officials knew the illegal acts of its employees (until they did, and took proper action, that is), it isn’t difficult for a jury to make the leap that they didn’t contribute in any way to the culture of fraud, even if it was just turning a blind eye to employee’s practices. Just recently, a hot issue in the news has been the scandal with Wells Fargo systematically teaching its employees to practice shady or illegal activities—it’s not difficult to think the same may be happening here.

You also can’t ignore that bigger banks with great scale crimes and clearer evidence of improper conduct were getting off scot-free while Abacus was not given the same deals or complacency from the District Attorney. The film’s subtitle, Small Enough to Jail, comes from this idea; early on, a talking head gives the quippy line “Big enough to fail or small enough to jail.” Perhaps the DA saw this small family owned bank serving a small community with little political influence and thought it would be an easy target. In the film, the prosecuting attorney states that this was in no way targeting a Chinese immigrant business specifically, and that is likely true, but there is no doubt that the big banks were untouchable and this would be an easy sell to a public extremely angry over the actions of bank practices.

James, being an experienced filmmaker with a journalistic eye, does his due diligence to talk with all parties involved. There is thankfully no “so and so refused our request to be interviewed” disclaimer just before the credits roll. More importantly, when he talks to lawyers from the District Attorney’s office or a juror who believed the Sung family to be liable for the fraud happening in their bank, he doesn’t cast them in an unfair way. It’s true that they don’t have as intimate a presence in the film as the Sung family, but James knows well enough not to make the film a hit piece. He understands the complications surrounding the indictment and it is clear that illegal practices were happening; James cares more about the specific cultural implications in the case and the more questions that sit in the moral grey space.

Away from the case, the biggest joys of Abacus are seeing the Sung family together, around a conference room table or the dinner table alike. The way they interact with each other feels so familiar, even as they are going through a completely unusual time. They laugh, cry, talk over each other, argue. Their family dynamic is fully realized in just a few short sequences that stand outside the major thrust of the film. This comes from James’s interest in community and communication, a strain in nearly all of his films, as well as his willingness to let the natural observances come to the camera. Though such a minor part of Abacus, the film wouldn’t be whole without the time you spend with the family. In these moments, it almost feels like the criminal trial is the superfluous part.

An entire other film could be made on Chinese immigrants and how their cultural concepts are translated to the U.S. James touches on a few key ones well enough, but it opens a box for wanting to know even more. That in no way means that Abacus: Small Enough to Jail feel incomplete, but shows how interesting and complex it subject matter is. From the simple opening image of two people watching It’s a Wonderful Life, the film expands to illegal banking practices, a long and contentious trial, a look at the lives and history of an immigrant population, and a fully realized depiction of an American family. Through his strong journalistic sensibilities, genuine interest in people, and the clearest descriptions of banking practices I’ve seen in any film, James has created a well-rounded and fantastic documentary.

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