DocWatch – ‘Abacus’ Comes to New York

Who Gets Loans? Who Gets Indicted?

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail  

dir. Steve James, USA, 2016, 88 minutes

(premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), 2016)

At the IFC Center – New York

As Abacus opens, we walk through the safe deposit boxes underground at Abacus Federal Savings Bank in lower Manhattan. There are thirty thousand of those boxes. Chinese immigrants have lived in very small dwellings in a place like New York. They needed places to store whatever valuables that they had. It’s a twist on the myth of buried treasure.

A Banker and at Least 30,000 Customers

Thomas Chung – A Banker and at Least 30,000 Customers

That said, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is as American as It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s the story of a prosecution of a small bank in Chinatown and its officers. Abacus Federal Savings Bank was eventually cleared, but at a cost of millions of dollars for its legal defense.

The documentary by Steve James looks at the only criminal prosecution of a bank in the 2008 US mortgage crisis. It’s one of those rare cases where you find yourself applauding a bank winning something.

That’s because Abacus is the story of a family. Thomas Sung, a Chinese immigrant, is a lawyer who started the bank. It was a rare source of loans for immigrants in Chinatown. When the bank crisis hit, and the bank became aware that at least one of its employees was bilking customers and making fraudulent deals, the bank took that information to federal regulators. Yet the bank and some of its employees were charged with “large scale mortgage fraud.” The family fought back, through a long trial.

Injustice and the excesses of prosecution are staples of documentary film, usually in David and Goliath terms, as they were here. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) found a family who wouldn’t settle a case that zealous prosecutors insisted on bringing. We get parallel stories of the characters in a close family and an insular community that relies on its own people.

We also get a short discussion of why, given the prosecution of Abacus, larger institutions which hurt (and still hurt) millions of families got off with fines and a lot less scrutiny.  I’ll let you find out when you see the film.

Before the current demonizing of Mexicans, with calls to build a wall and round up children, think of the 19th century when Chinese and other Asians were restricted (walled off) to certain parts of cities, to certain jobs, and banned from voting or buying property. It makes sense that those communities would trust the institutions that they had no choice but to build. It’s inevitable, then, that outsiders might misunderstand them.

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