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Steve James Says ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’ Was a Purposefully Intimate Look at the 2008 Financial Crisis

James and producer Mark Mitten reveal why only one bank was prosecuted following the 2008 financial crisis.

Director Steve James

In the 2008 financial crisis, there was only one bank that was ever indicted on charges related to mortgage fraud — not one of the big Wall Street banks, but instead a small, family-owned, neighborhood institution serving the immigrant community of New York City’s Chinatown: Abacus Federal Savings Bank.

The film “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” follows the Sung family as they defend their business from prosecution.

At a Q&A following a screening of the film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series, producer Mark Mitten, who had known the Sung family for years, said their story flew under the radar.

“Even they didn’t recognize that they were the only bank that was indicted for mortgage fraud. So I started to dig into it to say, ‘There’s got to be another bank. How can this be the only bank?’ And it just seemed hypocritical that the banks weren’t being prosecuted, and instead this community bank, which was serving an underserved community, was.”

Director Steve James said that The New York Times only covered the story twice: once when the bank was indicted, and once when the verdict was read.

“I think it has to do with the fact that it was petty levels of crime, of fraud, that was going on,” he said. “It as dwarfed by in every respect by what the big banks had done, so it didn’t seem that important.”

“Abacus” is a more intimate portrait of a family, rather than an explainer of the entire financial crisis. That was a purposeful move, James said.

“One thing we were pretty clear on, and I’m happy we did this, is that we did not want to re-litigate the whole big financial crisis. There are…other documentaries that do that fabulously. In fact, one of the things that was really interesting in editing is that at first, when we were editing the sections that, through Matt Taibbi and others, lay out the broad strokes of that, we were using a lot of the same kind of imagery that you would see, like the bull on Wall Street and the ticker tapes and all that kind of stuff. All that stuff you see all the time.”

He continued, “And at one point we decided you know what, since we’re not going to get into that anyway is there some way, visually, we can try to represent them that gets us away from all of that? And we settled on the idea of just seeing the facades of these huge, very powerful banks and leaving it at that. It was important that you were reminded of all that, but we didn’t want to try to explain it all again for you.”

Watch clips from the Q&A below:

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is available on streaming services and can be watched online via PBS Frontline.

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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