Depicting Courtroom Scenes, Finding and Revising the Story, and the State of Nonfiction Filmmaking

Since making his mark as one of the directors of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams, Steve James has built up a solid body of work that has taken subjects as diverse as film critic Roger Ebert (Life Itself) and a group of Chicago activists that tries to prevent street violence (The Interrupters.) His latest film, Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, explores the travails of Chinese-American businessman Thomas Sung, owner of Abacus, the only bank prosecuted for mortgage fraud after the 2008 financial crisis. Let there be no spoilers here: Abacus was acquitted. Sung and his wife are shown watching Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life in James’ opening scene, and while it may be possible to read Abacus as a Capraesque tale of the triumph of the little man, that ignores the fact that Sung only won the case because he could mount a $10 million defense over years. The film’s main stylistic innovation is its expressive use of chalk drawings to depict courtroom scenes James couldn’t film. But its sense of horror begins with an indelible expression of American racism.


StudioDaily: Was the image of a hallway full of Chinese people in chains and handcuffs the starting point for Abacus?

Steve James: It’s certainly not the reason I wanted to make the film, but it was astounding to see that’s how they handled the indictment, and it revealed so much about the D.A.’s office.

It certainly seems tone-deaf.

Tone-deaf, but in the film, [New York D.A. Cyrus] Vance backtracks and says it was unfortunate. But at the time, he got what he wanted. He got the sort of coverage in the mainstream press in New York that disappeared afterwards. For their office, it went perfectly well until the verdict. Fraud apparently was going on, to the extent that they had to chain people and parade them down a hallway. If you look at the original articles, no one is saying anything weird is going on. They’re just saying “Fraud!” Then there was no coverage until the verdict in The New York Times and hardly anything anywhere else. That’s something they were probably happy about it. They expected a guilty verdict and a triumph, being able to say they had been able to prosecute a bank in the wake of the 2008 mortgage crisis.

As an outsider to Chinatown, how did you get the trust of the people of the community?

That’s all due to Mr. Sung. And that’s not uncommon in the films that I’ve done, where I’m often trying to be in communities that are not ones I’ve lived in or grew up in. Because of Mr. Sung’s long history there, first as a lawyer and then as a banker, that’s why people were able to let me participate in any meaningful way beyond just walking down the street and shooting shots. Nobody was hostile towards me, but not everyone wanted to be filmed. I’ve encountered that everywhere. It helped that the community activist Don Lee supported the film. He’s a very prominent person in the Chinese-American community. You get a sense of that as he’s walking around Chinatown and trying to be helpful to be people.

If the film were a TV show, I’m sure the courtroom scenes would have been reenacted with actors. Instead, you use audio and chalk drawings. What inspired that stylistic decision?

The audio is a re-creation by us, which we indicate, but at least we were able to get the defense lawyers to do their lines. We found out right away we couldn’t be in the courtroom. That presented an immediate problem. At this story’s heart is a trial we’re not going to be able to film. How are we going to deal with it? I know I didn’t want to go to a default of shooting an empty jury box and judge’s table . We did shoot those shots because I knew we would want some of them. That wasn’t all I wanted to be able to see, so I hired a very talented courtroom artist who does trials. We got her there for several days, to just do a baseline of illustrations that she would expand upon. If we had a bigger budget, we probably would’ve animated it. Some filmmakers would have used that style and animated the whole thing, but I didn’t have that kind of money. Did it work for you?

It reminded me of ’80s TV news.

We all know that in trials where there can be no cameras, courtroom artists are the default go-to people. We took it several steps further than what you would normally see, because there are angles in our illustrations no courtroom artists could ever do. They don’t get to draw into the face of the lawyer. This is more like movie storyboarding, but it does use the aesthetic of the courtroom illustration. which was a staple of the ’80s.

What kind of camera did you shoot with?

We shot most of this with the [Canon] C300. Some of it was done with the Sony PXW-FS7.

With funding for PBS in peril, do you wonder about the future of production of films like this?

We have money from ITVS in this, and it certainly could be impacted by a reduction in funding. The whole entire documentary community has to be concerned with what’s happening. It seems like every Republican administration of the last 30 years has threatened to defund public television, and it has not yet happened. It’s also true that PBS has operated on a shoestring and, if anything, there should be more funding for it instead of cutting it or maintaining the status quo.

It’s ironic that just as this is happening, the PBS-produced I Am Not Your Negro is having huge success.

Well, I Am Not Your Negro is an astounding and very encouraging success. It’s an incredible film, as many have noted and written about. Even though it’s extremely timely, I never would have predicted it would do the kind of box office it’s done.

Your film plays as a narrative documentary. Was its shape apparent as you were making it, or did it come together in the editing room?

The particulars of how we got through that trial and how the family would react were unknown. Of course we knew there would be a trial and a verdict, guilty or innocent. In the course of making any film, it’s a discovery process. You go in with ideas and thoughts and constantly revise them over the course of filming and again in editing. That’s what I love about documentary, as opposed to most narrative films. In narrative films — most, not all — you start with a script and try to save it in the editing.

The film’s subtitle sets us up to expect the exact opposite of what happens. I assume that was deliberate.

We lifted it because Matt Taibbi said it in his interview which comes right before the title: “This is a bank small enough to jail.” I don’t generally go for cute titles in my films. But in this case, it seemed like a pointed way of saying they were small enough to jail, even though they were innocent. The prosecution just failed to do it. I like it not only because of its attention-grabbing aspect, but it’s kind of saying to the audience from the get-go where we’re coming from. This is a film whose point of view is pretty clear from the start. We don’t go along in this “objective” storytelling fashion. The title echoes that. Taibbi clearly thinks an injustice went on. But I think we did succeed in laying out the case against them. Even though we’re in their corner, we hear from people who thought they were really guilty.

How well did you know Roger Ebert before making Life Itself?

Not very well. I first met him around Hoop Dreams. I would see him from time to time over the 20 years between that and Life Itself. He was friendly, but I always took the firewall between critics and filmmakers very seriously. If I saw him at a public event, I’d chit-chat and say hello, then scurry away. I figured I didn’t want to make it uncomfortable for him. If I had known him well, I would have told his story differently. Not being friends with him freed me up to learn more about him, but I wasn’t beholden to him in showing his warts: his ego, his alcoholism, his womanizing and stuff.

Do you think you benefit from being based in Chicago, rather than New York in L.A.?

There are a lot of very talented filmmakers in New York and an increasing number in L.A. I’d rather not compete with them. I love Chicago. There are so many stories to tell there, although obviously not all the stories I tell are Chicago- or Illinois-based. It’s a big, messy, complex American city that suits me really well.

Do you feel like there’s become a glut of new documentary releases? Maybe this is only a New York thing …

You get them all here.

… but we get something like 20 new releases each week, many of them being docs, and the bulk of them disappear from theaters in a week.

It’s tough. On the one hand, you don’t want to say, “People should stop making documentaries because there’s too many of them out there.” People have a passion, a means and a story to tell. One hopes that at least the ones that have real merit, even if they come and go theatrically very quickly, will have lasting value in the culture in other ways. Sometimes it may just be that you documented something important from a historical standpoint that someone else could benefit from. It’s a little bit like the “crabs in the barrel” scenario: everyone is climbing over everyone else to be the crab that gets out of the barrel. I would rather choose too many documentaries than too few. The art form is growing and expanding in exciting ways. You do wish that more of these films had their moment in the sun. Maybe there will be a market correction down the road, because we can’t accommodate so much. For now, it’s exciting to be a part of it.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens this Friday, May 19, at the IFC Center in New York City, June 2 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, and June 9 at the Nuart in Los Angeles, the Landmark in San Francisco, and the Shattuck in Berkeley, CA.