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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Documentarian Steve James was famously snubbed for an Oscar nomination for Hoop Dreams; he later directed the Roger Ebert story, Life Itself, and didn't get nominated for that either. He did get nominated for a film I hadn't heard of, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, and it's terrific.

After a long day driving yesterday I wasn't sure I wanted to watch a documentary about banking, but I put it in the DVD player and was almost immediately engrossed. Abacus is a very small bank--six branches--that serves the Chinese immigrant community in New York City. It is also the only bank who had directors indicted for the mortgage crisis of the last decade. It was said of the big miscreants, like Goldman Sachs and Chase, that they were too big to fail. So the D.A.s office went for a very small fish in a big pond.

I knew nothing about this case so it was fascinating to see how James set it up. The first image we see is of Thomas Hung, the founder of the bank, and his wife watching It's a Wonderful Life. Hung admires George Bailey, and wanted to do what he did--run a bank that was helpful to the community. He has four daughters, and two of them work in the bank. It is very much a family affair. But prosecutors, led by New York D.A. Cyrus Vance, Jr, are determined to bring them down.

At first you wonder who's telling the truth, but soon it becomes apparent that James is on the side of the Hungs. Vance, and Polly Greenberg, another prosecutor, are portrayed as something like cops giving a ticket for jaywalking, while Hung and his wife and daughters are humanized. You will quickly find yourself rooting for them.

What happened? A rogue loan officer was caught falsifying loan applications and receiving gratuities. He was fired on the spot, but the bank was nonetheless charged with being fraudulent toward Fannie Mae. However, a small pittance of the loans defaulted. No one lost any money. It was as if the D.A.'s office heard the complaints that no one went to jail from the housing crisis, and decided to go after any bank they could find.

A good chunk of the film is the trial, which was not recorded so the transcripts are read aloud. James gets a few of the jurors to comment, as well as most of the lawyers. The trial lasts almost two months, and as it goes on the suspense grows. I won't say how it comes out, because I didn't know.

Fortunately, the film is not rife with financial jargon and is fairly easy to understand. But the backbone of the film is the Sung family. One of the daughters is a lawyer for the D.A.'s office. With tears in her eyes, she explains how shocking it was to her that her own colleagues were going after her family. She, quite rightly, chooses family and quits.

Abacus is an interesting look both at the banking industry and at the community of Chinese in New York City. Was this prejudicial? Some think so, as Asians are still regularly discriminated against in the U.S.A. Someone asks, would this had been done to a bank run by African-Americans? Or Jews?

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