Steve James has been consistently crafting some of the smartest, most groundbreaking, most effective works of non-fiction for decades. Vaulted to the public eye with the majestic Hoop Dreams, his works have ranged from intimate portrayals of troubled men (Stevie), inner-city activists (The Interrupters) to giants in their field (the Roger Ebert doc Life Itself), often finding stories in and around his Chicago home.
There’s no specific shtick to James’ films; it’s not like a few minutes in you immediately know they’re his (unless, of course, he shows up on camera). Yet viewed as a throughline, you find a filmmaker interested in justice and the complexity surrounding it, finding situations that easily could be documented on simplistic, black-and-white terms and instead using all his craft and guile to tell a story with appropriate nuance.
His latest film, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail tackles an esoteric banking trial involving an institution set up to help the community of New York’s Chinatown. Despite the dry procedural nature of the subject James elevates the story with a myriad of themes – the David vs Goliath struggle, the unique aspects of a community, greater questions about economic fairness – leaving the viewer both more informed and more unsettled in their views. This is the central skill of this gifted filmmaker, giving audiences stories in ways even we didn’t know we wanted, and Abacus is another notch in a career that continues to astonish.
We sat with James for an exclusive, extensive interview following the film’s screening at TIFF last September.
Banking and New York city aren’t often associated with your work. What set you on the path to tell this story?
Ideas come to me for films in different ways. Sometimes, they are completely my own idea but not always. Tthis one came to me through Mark Mitten, who is a producer on the film and was an executive producer on Life Itself. He had a relationship with the family and he was talking to Vera Sung who is a friend of his, and she said this is a crazy thing going on and no one is writing about it except in the Chinese press in New York City.
There was a chapter written in this book that had come out by Matt Taibbi called The Divide, about the unequal application of justice in America and the first chapter of it is devoted to the Sungs's indictment. I read it, and I was just oh my God, I don't know if I can do this. I just said I'll go and I'll spend 3 days filming and let's just see if I feel like there's a story here that I can tell.
Part of what was really interesting about it from the get go wasn't just here's this family going through this crazy trial and the only US bank to face this, but I was also really struck about their place in the community, in Chinatown, as an anchor there and that story. I don't know anything about Chinatown, I love the idea of having this way in to understanding something about that.
And you went in presumably speaking no Cantonese or Mandarin.
No. I loved the idea of having a way in to that through this prism of a community bank. I never thought much about banks and their roles. I certainly thought about how egregious the big banks were, like many of us, but I'd never thought about a small community bank and what is its mission. And its mission is under seige now because of this indictment and trial.
We went forward even though we had no access to the courtroom. We tried, didn't get it. We had no access to the prosecution until after the trial was over, and we were fortunate to get them after because after they lost, I thought, well, we'll never get them now, but we did. From a filmmaking standpoint, like we do in every film we make, it's about going with what you can make here and figuring out how to overcome the obstacles of what you don't have.
It sounds like the key thing is to be present, to allow the film to come to you. The additional challenge with a film like this is you're going in, particularly if you're working with the family, a presumption of innocence. Or at least a presumption that they are, that the story here is they're being steamrolled, not the story that they're steamrolling.
It's what I hoped we would find. We talked about this - Mark had this relationship with the Sungs which predated this film by a number of years. That's both a really good thing for access and to be able to even tell the story, because I don't know that they would just let anybody come in and do that. We're telling this from their point of view, clearly, because that's the only point of view we're going to be able to tell anyway, and it's the most interesting. But I said to Mark we have to be careful around this because we have every intention of trying to pull in the other side and get the case against them, and what if it's pretty compelling? We have to tell that part of it. You don't want to miscommunicate our intentions to them to the point where they think that come hell or high water that we are just in this to express their side of this, because we're not.
So there’s a fair bit of hope that they’re telling the truth.
That was going to be tricky here because we're with them and so I prayed of course that we weren't going to get in to the middle of it and think my God, these people are guilty.
Were there moments where, especially during the cut, you were balancing between not wanting this to be a commercial for their bank, you want to be recognizing that clearly some things went very wrong and clearly in some ways they're culpable, if not legally, certainly morally, for allowing this to go under their watch?
That's why it was important for us to press so hard to get the case against them into the movie and get it from the people who believed it - not have their lawyers articulate the prosecution's case, but have it come from Cyrus Vance, from Polly Greenberg. It was very strategic on our part to pursue two jurors, we wanted to make sure at least one of them was someone who felt that there was some guilt, and that was important to be in the movie.
I find her one of the more fascinating characters you've ever had in any of your films. You do a beautiful job of teasing that we don't know where the trial is going, but absolutely, she demonstrates, she's the lynch pin of seeing like look, bad things happened here, it's really complicated, but did not prove the case.
Right. And I think that it was very important to show that. We wrestled in the editing about which part of the trial to feature, one of the things, and we took a lead from the jurors in terms of what stuck with them. When she says there were gift letters signed by the loan officer, we went in search of the transcript to find that moment to feature in the trial. There was I thought a very convincing counter to it from the defense side that played out in the trial. The defense lawyers told us that they felt that they actually won every day of the trial. Lawyers tend to look at these things like day to day, like did we win today or not. Ah, we didn't win today -- get 'em tomorrow! They felt like every day, they had won, but from the jurors' standpoint, that wasn't necessarily the case. When you look at the trial transcripts you kind of feel like the defense did carry the day, but it just shows the degree to which the jurors took away things that they felt strongly about and it's not that simple.
How could they not have some culpability, given the amount of fraud that was going on at these low levels? That was important to articulate. I hope that the viewer comes to two things: one, I don't believe they knew about it because if they had known about it they would not have fired Ken Yu, they would not have initiated their own internal investigation. But then the other piece of this is, to your point, is, even if you don't know about it, it happened and it means that something was going wrong.
As appalling as it is, rightly or wrongly, these are rounding errors in the grand scheme of fraud.
The kind of fraud that was going on at Abacus is not that different, and it's very similar to the kind of fraud that has gone on everywhere around mortgages. I don't know if you own a home.
Our system here is very different. I do own a home, but it's very different here, we're regulated much more stridently.
In America, when I went in for my first mortgage load, it was like, how much do you make? Well, I wasn't making that much. I gave them a very rosy view of how much I was making, and they just wrote it down. They didn't say, could I see some pay stubs? I was freelancer in film, trying to make my way. I talked to some guy that once worked at Goldman Sachs not that long ago, I happened to be across the table from him at some event. He asked what I was working on, and when I told him about the fraud that had been uncovered, he told me, yeah, that never happens anywhere [sarcastic tone]. That's also part of the reality, is that this was such petty fraud. But I didn't want to dodge that, I wanted that all to be in the film so that you as a viewer like we did as filmmakers. It's not so simple, and even if you disagree with the prosecution bringing in the case, at least you understand where they came from.
And it's not simply political maliciousness that they brought this case?
No, people believe that.
And it's not simply incompetence as to why this allowed to go on, that there was clear malicious intent to obfuscate that this was happening, this was happening at a level that those in senior management were not to see, therefore, they as senior management were not necessarily culpable because everybody else was punished appropriately. And yet, there are those that will watch this and say, fucking bankers, got away with what they got away with it again. Others will say, well, why were the poor bankers picked upon by a ruthless and potentially racist government who was intent on bringing the Chinese down?
It'll be interesting to see what the reaction is. So far, very few reviews that have been out, they've taken the view that this really was ridiculous that this happened, but I think you're right that there will be some viewers who will say maybe there was some very real culpability here that needed to be addressed and don't know that the right verdict was delivered. If that's the case, it'll be interesting to see how they view the film, because I could see them [arguing we are] too much in support of the bank. For me at the end of the day while I think it's hard to believe that the Sungs knew I think it's also possible to believe that obviously they had mismanagement or it wouldn't have happened so much.
Then the notion of whether they should have known is a moral rather than a legal question.
One juror [asks] to what degree did they turn a blind eye to it? I believe that the argument that ultimately carries the day is this is not a criminal case. It's a case of regulatory problem and there's a system in place to address that. There are regulators, when they reported this to the regulators, the regulators come in. As the card at the end says, they've been under regulatory [scrutiny], there have been changes made because of the regulatory process. Do you really put a banking institution like this through a five year ordeal, and especially against the backdrop of the major banks for whom what they were doing was undeniably criminal?
I would suggest it's clearly deniably criminal because they haven't been criminally charged. Taibbi’s point is this they’ree going after this bank instead of the big banks that are too big to fail. It meant to sate the bloodlust of post-2008 of we should jail the heads of Chase of Morgan of whatever. There is this implied catharsis in the criminal justice system of the United States, that if we jail these people, we have somehow made up for the regulatory errors that they've made.
Yeah, well, Neil Barofsky would tell you that the big banks needed to be broken up, that's what needed to happen.
And that's a regulatory, not criminal, matter.
Right. But a lot of anger in the States isn't just over criminal prosecution, it’s that we haven’t really changed anything.
Did you see, while you were filming them, Abacus changing?
Abacus fired people they thought were doing the wrong thing. We don't really go into the regulatory changes that happened, and that might be a shortcoming of the film that we didn't spell that out, but this was a shakeup for them too. This wasn't like, oh, well, we'll just get rid of Ken Yu and move along. You don't bring in a former federal prosecutor to examine your operation if you have no intention of changing it.
I think you can say they can be held accountable for not having an environment that was conducive to a lot less fraudulent behaviou. One of the things they said in their defense is that it's really hard to know when something is going wrong when the loans are performing. It's not like everyone who walked in the door walked out with a loan. Abacus had a very low default rate on their loans, it's actually 1/20th of the national average. They didn't participate in any of the sub-prime. I mean, as far as bankers go, these guys are George Bailey, compared to the great majority, they really are. I looked them in the eye and I believed them when they said.
A harder question though - would you have made this film if you thought they were culpable?
Yes. I wouldn't have had any way to know starting it, but I definitely would have finished it. Here's the thing, if it had turned in to that kind of story, it would have much more theatrical potential! [Laughs] That would have been a sexier story to tell, without question.
Hold on, is Hoop Dreams a better film because they didn't make it to the NBA?
When the film ended, you didn't know what their future was, so it's almost like that's not a relevant question. But if [juror] Jessica had carried the day and most of the people watching this movie felt what a profound, and I would have felt that way too, ultimately a miscarriage of justice, that's a more devastating end to a movie. These are all of the kinds of things that are a part of making documentary movies if you're honest with yourself. I did not want them to be found guilty, I did not want to find out that they were complicit, because I don't really want to tell that story. But I will tell that story. I didn't want to find that out because I really wanted to believe that these people were the good, kind, honourable people that they presented themselves to be. And you know what? I like this story the way it is, even though it may be less sexy as a result.
Is there an example of one of your films where that shift happened? Obviously you do follow stories, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades, but that you've had that moment of, you've started here and then ended here?
Two examples come to mind. When we started Hoop Dreams, I thought [highly of] the coach at St. Joe's, the reputation of that school as a program and basketball powerhouse. They were like Duke. Yes, they may recruit players to come up, but they get a better education, Pingatore was considered one of the great coaches who cares about his players, and I do think he cares about his players, but I did not think that Pingatore's portrayal when we began the project was going to be what it became for sure. Even though I maintained a great relationship with him, I knew early on that this was not going to be a flattering portrait of him.
I want to expand on that feeling as a filmmaker - That realization that your story is now not what you set out to do, and how you deal as a filmmaker with that balance. Because you're still having to maintain a very intimate relationship with your subject.
It's hard. One of the things I value as a person and a filmmaker is being candid and honest and straightforward. It serves me well in life, in general, but it also serves me well as a filmmaker. Your primary subjects need to feel from you in order to trust you, to let you in and all of that.
Yet I’m not going up to Pingatore at a certain point and saying, you know what, Gene, I think you're really screwing this up here. You really need to change your behaviour or you're going to come off badly. I'm not going to do that. It doesn't feel right to do on any of a number of levels, but, I'm still maintaining this good friendship with him throughout because I need that in order to make the film I'm making. That's one of the trickiest, hardest parts about doing these kinds of documentaries because however candid and honest and as much of a straight shooter you are and try to be, there are situations and with certain people for whom if you're going to tell an honest story and keep the access you need to tell that story, you can't be completely honest and candid with them. You have to accept the fact that that is what it is and there's no answer to that that can make you feel entirely good about that.
You always show them the film so that they have a chance to react before people see it, not in order to change the film, but at least to not be hoodwinked at some sort of premiere?
Not just that. If Pingatore, if he points out to me that I'm in error, if he had shown me or demonstrated that we had it wrong, I would have changed it. You want to make sure, especially when you're dealing with sensitive subject matter, that what you're doing is defensible journalistically and to the people that were involved. They may disagree with you, and they may convince you, and they may not.
What was the second time that you were in a film and that shifted?
Well, another example that was less dramatic than Gene in a sense, but it's true is in Stevie. Stevie's grandmother at the beginning of the movie comes off as an angel on earth. She took him in when his mom didn't want him. She raised him and she didn't have to do it as she was his step-grandmother and no relation at all to the mother who had this child with someone who wasn’t her son. That was a profound act of generosity on her part to do that, without question. I had no idea until I got into the middle of the making of the film the degree to which she then fueled Stevie's rage towards his mother. She fanned it all those years that she raised him, pouring all of that rage of her own into Stevie. As the movie goes on, you see her differently, and you see that despite having done this good thing for Stevie, she has also done something that has damaged him and made him this kind of incredibly angry man that he is. That was a revelation during the course of making the film - grandma isn't so sweet.
The difference between this and say, an historical doc, is the notion that you're shooting chronologically. And that the later scenes are informed by the earlier scenes because they are captured after the fact. You are not looking backwards when you start your project, you are constantly looking forward. That must be both thrilling and incredibly daunting to be halfway through the film and not sure that you have a film. Does that really happen, or is that simply, us thinking that the job isn't as hard as it is but in other ways it's not quite as hard as that. That you know pretty early on that you're on the right path?
Well, I would say that if I get halfway through filming and don't feel I have a film, that would be concerning. I don't think I've gotten that deep into a film and feel like I don't have a film. Now, do I have a really good film? That's different. Sometimes I don't feel like I have a really good film until later. But I've certainly had times early on when I wasn't sure if there was a film here or not.
I think with Abacus, as we went along, and as the family revealed itself more and we got more of who they are how they were relating and all of this, then I started to feel more comfortable about that and of course. We didn't know how the trial was going to turn out.
Someone once said to me that my films are like going on a fishing trip and you don't really know if you're going to bring back fish. That's part of it that's kind of thrilling too. And I've never started a film that I haven't finished. I feel like there's always a story, you just have to be patient and stay with it. I feel like I'm the tortoise, not the hare.
It may be completely naive, but the whole notion of with something like Hoop Dreams, over years and years, you can see why the film takes on itself an epic shape, but something like Abacus could easily be a 20 minute segment of Frontline and get none of the nuance, simply tell the story, journalistically. Now that you have freedom, you have many more places that these things can go, that you can find a home for it, that if you start a project, and you know that you have 20 minutes of something you can find it, and if you have 10 hours.
I've made some short films. I've actually made a few of them now. I actually made one about 9 minutes long about Alzheimer's, early onset Alzheimer’s, it's actually one of my favourite of the short things I've done. It's only 9 minutes. I shot it in a weekend with a family that, the dad was going through early onset and the family was trying to grapple with how to deal with it.
When we started to edit this film, I said, this is a 90 minute film, it's no more than that. Which probably surprises people, because "I didn't think he made 90 minute films!" But I just had in my gut, and it's 89 minutes with credits.
But it's not 52 minutes. It doesn't feel like a broadcast.
Right. And you could have made that version of it too, but I like the film we've made and I feel like it's the right length. It doesn't wear out its welcome. With Ebert, I felt like that's going to be around 2 hours. Because I felt like there was just so much that needed to go in there. Yes, we could have made it shorter, of course, you can always make stuff shorter and I've had to make stuff shorter for BBC and such. I can do it, but I didn't want to do it because I felt that it was substantial enough. His life and what we got was substantial enough that it deserved 2 hours. You have to make choices.
The same with Interrupters. I know some people don't like the length of my films, I get it. I also think that the length of them is part of the depth of them. Even if you think it might be too long, that the length of them allows them to have a depth that they wouldn't have otherwise. Yet maybe you may or may not be able to appreciate because you think it's too long.
Do you still believe in a divide between a theatrical documentary and simply a documentary, whether a cinematic experience of watching a documentary is fundamentally different and as such, do you treat your projects differently if you know they're going to be screening for a theatrical audience?
I don't really think about that too much. I really don't. Certain stories really lend themselves to it. I just try to tell a story the best I can, I don't really think about [medium]. I think the scale of the story often has a lot to do with that, not just the visuals - Is that world really going to come to life on the big screen?
I don't do picturesque documentaries in general, so I don't really think about that too much. I worry about trying to tell a good story and whatever comes of that, comes of that. I don't think a lot about theatrical or non-theatrical until the film's done and then see what happens. I think that may be for health reasons, self-preservation, because I don't want to drive myself crazy, like, this film needs to be in theatres!
We'll see what happens.
Yeah, exactly, that's my M.O. We'll see what happens. It's the only way I know to be and be sane.