The TDF Interview: Steve James

The name Steve James may not reverberate as loudly as some of the more acclaimed documentary filmmakers, such as Errol Morris or Werner Herzog but the quality of his work certainly compares. No doubt you will recall 1994’s game-changing Hoop Dreams, the success of which helped to demonstrate the genres box office potential. It also stands as the only documentary film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing, which is surprising when you consider the amount of footage shot for almost every documentary.

Stevie and The Interrupters further cemented his reputation, before the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself, somehow missed out on an Oscar nomination. James returns with another unique and humane story - Abacus: Small Enough to Jail - which looks at the unfair treatment of a family owned Chinese-American bank in New York’s Chinatown, who remain the only US bank to be charged with any crimes relating to the 2008 mortgage crisis.

We spoke to Steve recently about how he first got involved in the project, the difficulties of being involved with an on-going trial and how he views the changes in the documentary landscape over the past 20 years.

The story is mostly told in real-time, although it wasn't a heavily publicised trial at the time. How did you hear about and get involved in the project?

It was brought to my attention by one of the producers, Mark Mitten. Mark and I have known each other for ten years and he worked with me on Life Itself, the Roger Ebert film. He called me up one day and told me he knows this family he’s been friends with for quite a while, and said they’re about to begin this trial. He told me that no-one is really reporting on this, and I certainly hadn’t heard of it, and it kind of went from there. It led to me going to New York with him and a crew – because I live in Chicago – and we filmed for about three or four days and based on that trip I decided that I wanted to do the film.

Following a trial in real-time is fraught with potential problems because there is always the danger that evidence will come to light to completely change the films moral position. How did you guard against that? 

When we first got to New York to start filming, we hadn’t worked out all the particulars but we knew the Sungs were receptive to the filming and us following the story from their vantage point. But we didn’t know if the prosecution would let us film anything at all. We reached out, but going nowhere with that. We wanted to film in the courtroom and the judge was predisposed to let us in but it was up to the lawyer teams to say yes, but they didn’t. So really, the only vantage point through which to tell this story was going to be the Sungs.

After spending a few days with them, hearing their side of the story and investigating the case in more detail, I had a hard time figuring out how they could be guilty. This was taking into account the basic things that had happened in the case. The fact that they’d discovered the fraud, they had fired the employee, Ken Yu, and they had on their own – which they weren’t required to do – initiated their own internal investigation. That resulted in releasing a few more employees. They reported it to the regulator, they notified Fannie Mae (The Federal National Mortgage Association) and they had sent the agreed borrower in the Ken Yu case to the police as they weren’t sure at the time if that borrower was complicit with him in some way. Those are not the actions of a company that is orchestrating this fraud, or encouraging it.

I did have to decide pretty early on that I don’t see how they could be guilty, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be found guilty. And we were clear with them that we were going to do everything in our power to understand the case against them, to involve the prosecution as best we can and that there may be some compelling evidence that they would have to answer to, both in court and in the film. And they were fine with that, they didn’t back off and say “we don’t want to do this”.

It was a fairly lengthy trial that no doubt used a lot of complex documentation containing very specific financial terminology. How did you decide which parts of the trial to focus on and how you were going to make it digestible to a wider audience?

This was definitely a challenge. At one point when we went back to film the empty courtroom, to help carry some of the case testimony, and the court officer who was assigned to be our chaperone asked us which trial the film was about. So, I told him and he was like “Abacus? Oh. That was a paper trial…” He was basically saying how boring a case it was. It was certainly clear to us that there was a challenge here in terms of how do we get our hands around a trial that went on for many months and included nearly 8000 pieces of testimony. How do we boil that down in a way that is true to what happened but also doesn’t put everyone to sleep?

Part of our choices were governed by the fact that it was all so petty. We had to delve into the charges that were being brought and the way in which they were being prosecuted had as much to do with the prosecutions unwillingness and insensitivity to the way in which banking actually happened. Not only in America but particularly in immigrant communities were people are working using cash economies and trying to gain a foothold here.  They showed profound insensitivity to aspects of Chinese-American culture, of how people make gifts to relatives so that they can buy a home, or start a business, that all of them will ultimately benefit from. The DA’s office tried to treat all of that as it was some sort of nefarious loan sharking operation.

Do you think the reaction and result - and the tone of your documentary as a whole - could have been different if the trial had taken place in 2007/08, closer to the epicentre of the financial crash?

That’s a really good question. If Abacus had have been prosecuted right at the time and there was a lot of public anger towards what had happened, it’s interesting to think whether jurors or the general public, would’ve done what Vance (District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr) would’ve wanted them to do, which is to lump Abacus in with the big banks and say “let’s stick it to the bank because we can’t get to the Bank of America and the like.” That’s clearly what Vance wanted, and there was one juror holding out, as referenced by the other jurors, who wanted that too, despite the judge’s instructions not to.

It could also have gone the other way, which is people could have said “This is nothing. Nobody lost their home? Why is this in court?” We didn’t want to dig too deep into the weeds of 2008 as there are plenty of other films that do that, but Matt Taibbi (a finance journalist who appears in the film) makes the point that the kinds of fraudulent practices the big banks were engaged in were incredible. And a lot of people were hurt. And you look at this case and none of the actions that were going on around Abacus had anything whatsoever to do with what went on in 2008. So, it’s possible people might have had a clear view of how this had nothing to do with that either, but it’s interesting to speculate.

Barclays were recently charged in the UK, although it has nothing to with the actual causes of the mortgage crisis. The image of the banks remain in the gutter but Abacus appears to be unique in that it’s a bank with a ‘conscience’. What do you want people to take away from the film?

The film has been out for a while, and it had a vigorous festival run and now it’s playing theatrically here in the States. So we’ve had a lot of first-hand experience of what people seem to get from it. Most people in the audience are quite angry that the Sung family were put on trial. When that card appears at the end of the film stating that Abacus are the only US bank to be prosecuted in connection with the 2008 mortgage crisis, you hear a lot of gasps and snickers and a lot of head shaking going on! Because it just doesn’t seem possible or right. I know people enjoy having a glimpse into the Chinese-American community, which is fairly rare here in our media and even in documentaries. There has also been this sense that Chinatown communities remain closed to the outside world. This film affords a bit of a glimpse into that through Mr Sung’s bank and his place in that community, and I think people appreciate that. I know that Asian American viewers and Chinese-American viewers in particular have come up to say that they appreciate that. And they appreciate the portrait of this family because they see a lot of themselves and their own families in the Sungs. They feel that’s not a view of Chinese-American family life they get to see onscreen much. And of course, the Sungs are very entertaining. If you sit and watch this film with an audience, you’ll hear a lot of laughter.

Mrs Sung, in particular, she’s fantastic.

Yes, the mum is a gift from the documentary Gods! She has good a comic timing as anybody. People come into the film expecting a critical look at the unequal application of justice in America. What they’re not prepared for is this humane portrait of a family in crisis and the way in which they deal with it and also just how lovely and engaging they are.

You've been making documentaries for over 20 years now, how do you find the process now compared to when you started with Hoop Dreams?

When Hoop Dreams came out back in 1994, the McCarthy Foundation in Chicago came in and saved that film. I remember meeting with the guy who was head of the fund and he asked me “Is there any chance this could be in a movie theatre?” and I replied “Oh no, no way. That will never happen.” First of all it originated on video and I’d never seen a documentary playing in a theatre that originated on video. Secondly, it was so rare that a documentary got into a theatre anyway, maybe one a year back then. They were extreme novelties. It was funny that I said all of that to him because as it turned out, Hoop Dreams played at a lot of theatres! At that time, that was the landscape where documentaries fell in the public eye. They were considered mostly medicine, something you had to watch in school, unless you were a boring public policy type who wanted to watch them on television. They just weren’t considered entertainment in any way.

But, of course, Hoop Dreams, and a few other films from that period that broke through were part of a shift that was happening. Documentaries started to gain much more of a mainstream appeal and critical attention. The pendulum swung quite some way from that time to the point where maybe reaching its pinnacle – in some ways, not in other ways – when Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 did $120m at the box office. I don’t know if that will ever happen again. It was extraordinary that a documentary, even one by Michael Moore, could have had such a huge presence in the market place and culture.

Now there are more documentaries than ever playing in theatres in the States, but many of them come and go with barely a whimper. They don’t get much attention and they certainly don’t get many people turning out to watch them. So, documentary hits are still pretty rare. I think that the place of documentaries in our larger culture is here to stay, at least for now. People no longer look at the genre the way they used to, they compete for people’s attention and they make a difference in terms of the public dialogue around lots of issues. There are many more places to see them, there are many more distributors who handle them and there are many more television networks that programme them – so the place in the culture has grown exponentially.

What’s also grown at the same rate is the number of people who want to make them, and the ease with which they can be made because of the advances in technology, as it doesn’t take many resources. If you have the time, you can go out and make your documentary, whether someone wants to fund you or not, which never used to be the case. There’s been an explosion in all of the art forms, in that there’s more being made than ever before, but that means there’s a lot of great stuff and a lot of not so great stuff made, that people will never really hear about. One of the frustrations for documentary filmmakers today is they worry about the competition for funding and making a film that hardly anyone will hear about, because there is such intense competition for public attention.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a documentary mini-series about a High School in Oak Park, near to where I live in Chicago. Oak Park is a community that is very diverse and progressive, and it has well-funded public schools, which is why a lot of people move here when they have children of school age. In many ways it’s a very unique and revered community with a proud history of race relations and diversity. But, they have struggled for decades with black students and their families in the educational system. They have not been able to figure out why so many black kids underperform in relation to white kids, in terms of majoring GPAs and ACTs and so forth. For years I thought it would be interesting to do a film about race and education in this place that’s very liberal but also hasn’t figured out a lot of things. You would think that this is the place where it would’ve been figured out and it hasn’t been. So, we’re doing a mini-series where we spend a whole year in the High School and we profile a lot of kids and teachers. It’s called America to Me which is lifted from the Langston Hughes poem ‘Let America be America Again’.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is released in UK cinemas on July 7

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