In this excerpt from the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1, Steve James discusses the making of his documentary ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail. To read the full interview, purchase a copy of the ebook here.
Steve James’ new documentary, ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail is a wonderful little treasure. On one level, it’s the story of a small family-owned bank, ABACUS, in New York’s Chinatown, which served the Chinese immigrant community, and which became the state’s target for prosecution during the banking crisis. The story was underreported in mainstream media so the film becomes a bit of a thriller as we wait with anticipation to find out the trial’s outcome. The case may not be the glamorous stuff of television drama, but James makes it emotionally resonant by showing it to us through the eyes of his protagonists and clearly explaining the content of the case.
ABACUS: Small Enough To Jail is also a compelling character study of the Sung family who own ABACUS: patriarch Thomas Sung, a lawyer and Chinese immigrant himself, who started the bank to give back to the community, his wife Mrs. Sung, and his amazing adult daughters — all but one of whom are lawyers. They weren’t going to take this court case lying down.
I talked to Steve James about how he balanced the technical side of the story with the more personal, character study of the Sung family, how he developed a way to visually tell the story of the court case without being able to be in court, and why Thomas Sung is a lot like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you put together the first ten minutes of ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail? You let us get to know the Sung family before the trial begins.
Steve James: You find out at the beginning that this is a bank that’s being put on trial. I wanted to give you a glimpse of the chain gang thing to be like, “Wow, this is serious! What’s going on here?” You want to intrigue the audience. You want to hook them. You want to give them the sense that there’s some real drama to come.You want to intrigue the audience. You want to give them the sense that there’s real drama to come.Click To Tweet
Then, we kind of step back for a little while. We used an early dinner to give you a sense of the family. In that dinner, they talked about the history of their bank, the goals, and why Mr. Sung started it. Then, we work our way around to the precipitating incident, which takes us back to the central story, which is a bank put on trial.
7R: In ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail, how did you approach telling the story of this bank, this family, Chinatown, and the financial crisis, all while documenting the case?
Steve James: I’m a big believer that you go into a project with what you feel is a strong idea of what you’re doing. But you have to be flexible about where the story leads. Inevitably, what really happens is far more interesting than anything you imagine going in. It’s really important to constantly revise the story that you’re telling as you’re making a film.It’s really important to constantly revise the story that you’re telling as you’re making a film.Click To Tweet
In this film, for example, we knew we wanted to deal, as background, with the 2008 mortgage crisis. We wanted to throw into sharp relief that these were the big banks, look what happened there. And here is this small bank, this community bank, and look what’s happening here. I didn’t want to have the film go off on this tangent where we just spend 20 minutes on the big banks because that’s not the story we’re telling. The challenge became how can we condense that down, tell you what you need to know, and have that be part of our story but not dominate our story.
In an early edit, the editor had drawn things off the internet from the early bank crisis: people being handcuffed that were individually charged, the bull on Wall Street — all the usual images like the tickers. I was like, “I’ve seen all that! I don’t want to do that.”
I came up with this idea that we create a sequence that tells you what you need to know with statistics, and the façades of the big banks, which speak to their power, and leave it at that. It felt like an elegant way to tell you what you needed to know without doing it in the usual way.
7R: ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail is also a character study. I just really loved everyone in this family. It was so wonderful getting to know them.
Steve James: That’s the heart and soul of the film, the family. It’s an important story to be told and should be told. That’s reason enough. But then, when you meet the family. For me, as a filmmaker, well, now I really want to tell this story. I fell in love with the family.That’s the heart and soul of the film, the family. I fell in love with the family.Click To Tweet
The whole family is fascinating, and they’re all very different from each other. We did our best to try to capture and present, in the finished film, enough of each of them, to give you a sense of who they are as individuals and collectively, as a family.
They’re interviewed multiple times. We didn’t just do one single, sit down interview with the members of the family. Sometimes, we interviewed them more formally. Sometimes, it was just “hey, we need you to tell us about this.” It’s an organic process. You have to roll with the punches. That’s part of what makes it so fun and enjoyable in documentary: you’re not working off a script. You’re working off of ideas and a story that you think you’re telling. You’re constantly revising as you go along.You’re working off a story that you think you’re telling. You’re constantly revising as you go along.Click To Tweet
To read the rest of the interview with Steve James on ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail, purchase a copy of the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1 here.