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True/False Conversations - In Chinatown, ‘Abacus’ Bank and Sung Family Defend Their Legacy

Steve James

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year's True/False Film Fest.


Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, New York was the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis. The Sungs are forced to defend the legacy of their family throughout a five year legal battle.



Director Steve James’ film Abacus: Small Enough To Jail follows the Sungs as they battle to clear their name and keep their community bank open.


Claire Banderas talked with James about telling the little-known story of this Chinese immigrant family.


Banderas: How you did you come across this story and decide to make this film?


James: Well, it was a story that no one outside of the Chinese press in New York City was really covering it at all. One of the producers on the film, Mark Mitten, is friends with the Sung family They were saying to him, ‘You know, we are going through this extraordinary thing right now.’ And so he then reached to me and said, ‘There's this really crazy story happening in New York with this small bank.’ That kind of hooked me and so we went and we shot for a few days to sort of get a sense of it and based on that I was hooked. Let's tell this story, it's an important story.


Banderas: You said you'd never done a film with courtroom drama before so what was that like this new kind of project? Were there things that you learned or struggles that you had?


James: There's several struggles with a film like this. One is, of course, when you go into a situation with a film that takes place around a trial you sincerely hope be able to be in the courtroom and sometimes you can get that. And in this case, we couldn't get in there. So we hired this fabulous artist to go in and she spent a few days in court and did a bunch of drawings that I knew would ultimately become the basis for sort of visualizing the court proceedings once we got into editing and decided what we wanted to feature. The other thing we weren't able to get access to was the prosecution during the trial. Only after. We didn't even get access to the defense lawyers during the trial. Basically we had access to the family during the trial and after spending time with the family and filming with them I decided that, that was enough because the family was so compelling and so interesting and so funny and so unique.


Banderas: You mentioned your previous work has been profiling people at certain moments in their lives and in a way this is kind of profiling that family. How do you work with subjects to get them used to having cameras following them?

James: I'm a big believer in just spending time with people and giving them the sense of what we're doing here. Just keep it small and intimate in approach and try to build that kind of relationship with the subject, so they like having you around and enjoy your company, as well as being on board with what it is the film is about. I think those are the key for me. You put in the time and you build the relationships.

Michaela Tucker is a Minneapolis native currently studying broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri. She is also a co-founder of KBIA’s partner program Making Waves, a youth radio initiative that empowers Columbia Public Schools students to share their stories.