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Interview with "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail" Director Steve James

When documentary filmmaker Steve James hits the red carpet at tomorrow night's 90th Academy Awards, it will, in my eyes at least, have been a long overdue moment. James was previously nominated for Best Editing for his 1994 masterpiece Hoop Dreams but that great documentary was inexplicably not nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Now James returns to the Oscar race with the Kartemquin Films production Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, a dark horse contender in the doc feature category. Abacus tells the story of the Sung family, owners of the Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, New York, who were wrongfully accused of mortgage fraud by the Manhattan District Attorney, as part of the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis.

James sat down with Free Cinema Now to talk about his new film and being recognized by the Academy.

Free Cinema Now: How did this project come to you?

Steve James: It came to my attention through Mark Mitten, one of the producers, who has known the family for over a decade. He learned about what they were going through and that a trail was imminent. [Mitten] decided that this seemed like such a crazy case and it didn't appear that anyone was really following it in the mainstream media at all, so he contacted me and gave me the broad strokes of it. It sounded crazy [to me too]. So we went to New York to shoot, and I was going to decide based on that [footage] whether to continue or not. By day two, I was like, "Okay. We're doing this."

FCN: Early in the film you reference the visual of the Abacus employees, chained together by handcuffs, being led down a hallway after arrest. A talking ahead later makes the comment that never would've happened with a "black group of employees." It's even more shocking to learn that three of those Abacus employees were already indicted and they were still posed to be shackled for the press photo op. Steve, your profession is in convincing the public with the images you present; your film tells a story very much in the same vein: Using images to sway public opinion. Can you share your thoughts on this?

SJ: Yeah, that was archival footage that we got. We managed to use both stuff from news stories and raw footage of the walk down the hallway -- which was really good to get -- so that we could mix the two together. And then [we] combined that with interviews to provide this other perspective on what you're actually watching, because if you just looked at the people being led down the hallway in chains, you don't have a whole lot of context for that; you could think these are some really bad people.

It's interesting that in The New York Times -- which did exactly two articles on this case, that indictment and then the jury's decision three years later -- there's nothing [in their] article about the indictment that says anything, [or is] editorializing, [on] the spectacle of these people being chained together or that they're low level bank employees. It obviously worked for [District Attorney Cyrus] Vance; his intentions were to paint these people as "bad people" and somehow worthy of being shackled together and led down the hallway. It got the attention he wanted to. By giving you the raw footage, without reporters prattling over it, is towards building a different kind of look than what was intended by the people who orchestrated [that spectacle].

FCN: (Nodding) So you broke down [the initial imagery] and then put it back together again. When I was first watching it, I was like, "Whoa"; that footage of them in shackles didn't sit well with me. Then we see the clip again later, but with commentary, and then we see it again, but with different context. 

SJ: And then there's another part -- after Polly Greenberg lies, literally, and says that it wasn't their decision to shackle them together, that it was the court officer's decision -- where we show you a piece [of the footage] again and have Chanterelle [Sung] tell you that that's not true, that they were being led down the hallway by D.A. detectives and we freeze [the frame] on them so you can see it.

All of that is just to show what Vance was trying to run away from it in his interview, [when he was] saying it was "unfortunate," you know, "feelings were hurt" or whatever; we decided to make a pretty big meal of that section because we felt there was a lot of complexity to what was going on there that you would miss otherwise.

FCN: I was thinking about Blowup. I was reminded of him coming back to the image...I look at that whole section [in Abacus] like its own little mini-movie! You think it's "this" but then...shit, it's "that." 

SJ: (Laughs) I'll take the Blowup reference. That's pretty great.

FCN: It's hard to make courtroom drama memorable today in movies. We've almost seen it all, let alone in documentaries. Your film has a striking approach to the images in court -- like the volume levels used for captioning Ken Yu's phone conversations. There were also several shots of empty seats in the court while the soundtrack played the audio of the defendants, plaintiffs and witnesses. How did you and your cinematographer arrive at this visual strategy?

SJ: We knew early on that the court case was going to be an engine for the film [in addition to] how the Sungs were dealing with it. But we didn't know what scenes, out of this 7,000-page transcript from the five-month trial, that we were going to isolate and feature until we got into editing. So, during the trial we hired Christine Cornell, this incredible New York City courtroom artist, to go in and spend a few days and make these drawings. They became a foundation for what we showed in the film, once we started editing those sequences together.

The courtroom sequences are made up of various elements. With the graphics team we came up with this visual representation to show those kinds of [audio] recordings. Then we also used the "empty courtroom [look]." When we went that day to shoot [in the empty courtroom] I had generated a whole list of the kinds of shots that I was looking for, plus [cinematographer] Tom Bergmann is a really great shooter, so it was a very collaborative day in terms of ideas I walked in with and then ideas you think of in the moment. I just didn't want the courtroom parts of the film to feel like "Oh, we're back in the courtroom..." (I knew the family was going to be really engaging outside the courtroom in what they were going through.) But all that courtroom stuff was a challenge in every regard.

FCN: I know you were recognized by The Academy for your editing but you should've been nominated for Best Documentary for Hoop Dreams over twenty years ago. How does this nomination in the Best Documentary category resonate with you?

SJ: When we got the nomination, it was great! It was great for a lot of reasons. One of them is -- this is a small film. It's not as ambitious an undertaking as some of the other films that I've done, including Hoop Dreams. [Plus] the fact that members of the branch took a film like this, and really saw what I think we managed to accomplish as filmmakers, was meaningful. But of course, even more meaningful, was that people really fell in love with this family [the Sungs] and were both moved and humored and then infuriated at the D.A.'s office on their behalf. All those things made it satisfying but I also that back on the other works [that I've done]; I thought back on Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters -- and not like "Oh they should've been nominated!" but [in the sense that] I've been really fortunate to follow the lives of some pretty extraordinary people in my view. To be let into their lives. And to be let into their lives at critical junctures.

So I thought about all those folks when I managed to sit back and reflect on [this Oscar nomination].


Watch the trailer for Abacus: Small Enough To Jail below.