Abacus: Small Enough To Jail
Directed by Steve James
You’ve surely heard — maybe from Bernie Sanders — that no bankers went to jail despite their industry’s culpability for the economic meltdown in 2008. But have you heard about that one time when prosecutors did go after a bank in the meltdown’s wake? That bewildering story, as told in the riveting documentary ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL, is the flip side to “too big to fail” immunity. Instead of taking on Lehman Brothers, the New York DA’s office decided to make an example of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a community bank serving New York’s Chinatown.
ABACUS, by esteemed documentarian Steve James (HOOP DREAMS, LIFE ITSELF), follows bank founder Thomas Sung and his family as they game out trial strategy. The film tracks the twists and turns of the trial while providing critical context: Abacus thrived because Sung understood his clients and their culture. The borrowers are often immigrants, operating cash businesses, who are safe bets for loans despite not having the documentation to qualify for one from a traditional bank. Indeed, the default rate for Abacus loans, even in the teeth of the financial crisis, was exceptionally low. But the D.A. sought to indict the bank and its principals anyway, ostensibly for the independent acts of a few bad apples in the bank’s employ.
Thomas creates an informal war council with daughters Jill, the workaholic bank president; Vera, a sensible attorney; and Chanterelle, an idealistic lawyer who’d just quit her job at the D.A.’s office. They’re engaging people, and one of the film’s chief pleasures is watching this accomplished Chinese American family strategize, quarrel, and support one another through the strains of a criminal trial. Throughout, James never loses sight of the central question: Why would the D.A. go so hard after this small bank for a “victimless” crime? While district attorney Cyrus Vance and his subordinates offer only feeble rationalizations for their actions, what emerges is far more disturbing: that Vance went after the Sungs just because he could — because there would be no fallout for going after immigrants with no political connections. Pulling no punches, ABACUS is one of the must-sees of this year’s Festival.
— Ryan Wu
Community Partner: Chinese Historical Society of Southern California
HOOP DREAMS (1994)
THE NEW AMERICANS (2004)
REEL PARADISE (2005)
AT THE DEATH HOUSE DOOR (2008)
NO CROSSOVER: THE TRIAL OF ALLEN IVERSON (2010)
THE INTERRUPTERS (2011)
HEAD GAMES (2012)
LIFE ITSELF (2014)
Producers: Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
Director: Steve James
Cinematographer: Tom Bergmann
Music: Joshua Abrams
Editors: John Farbrother, David E. Simpson
Jeff Adachi, Jim Choi / USA / 2017 / 16 minsTHE RIDE tells the story of San Francisco Public Defenders Office and head Jeff Adachi's fight against racial bias and injustice in the judicial system. Adachi takes viewers on a personal, intense ride through the underbelly of San Francisco's criminal "injustice" system. A recent case, involving a young African American man charged with resisting police officers, offers rare insight into what happens behind the scenes in a case with racial overtones.
Precedes: Abacus: Small Enough To Jail