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Doc Stars of the Month: The Sung Family, 'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail'

By Lauren Wissot

Left to right: Vera Sung, Jill Sung and Thomas Sung, from Steve James'  'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,' a PBS Distribution release. Photo: Sean Lyness

Editor's Note: Some of the greatest documentaries of all time would be inconceivable without their protagonists to drive the stories and keep us viewers enthralled. From the Beales to the Friedmans, from Bob Dylan to Bob Flanagan, these real-life people were transformed, through the dynamic collaborative processes with their respective filmmakers, into indelible and engaging characters of cinema. And it's thanks to the access and intimacy that these protagonists granted to the filmmakers that these films were made in the first place.

So when writer Lauren Wissot proposed a column in which she would interview a documentary subject every other month, we welcomed the idea. So, here is the second Doc Star of the Month (five months after the first one; things happen…): The Sung Family, of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jailwhich has been garnering accolades on the festival circuit ever since its Toronto debut, and was the opening night flick at this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival - is equal parts riveting and rage-inducing. Master documentarian Steve James's latest film lays bare the five-year legal drama of the Sung family, Chinese immigrant owners of (NYC) Chinatown’s Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which was accused of mortgage fraud by the limelight-seeking Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr., rendering this community-serving, family-owned-and-operated shop the sole US bank to face criminal charges in the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. (And despite, ironically, having one of the lowest default rates in the country. Indeed, Fannie Mae even continued to do business with Abacus after the indictment!)

So needless to say, it was a privilege for me to chat collectively by email with this heroic and tight-knit family of six (Abacus founder and patriarch Thomas; his wife, Hwei Lin; and daughters Vera, Jill - both bank executives - Chanterelle and Heather) prior to the film's opening at NYC's IFC Center on May 19 through PBS Distribution.

You were introduced to Steve through a personal connection, as his producer Mark Mitten knows Vera. But were you still hesitant to have a camera crew invade your lives at such a difficult time? Anxious to get the ordeal exposed to the wider world? Both?

The Sungs: We each felt differently, to varying degrees. Any hesitation was due to several reasons, such as wanting to stay focused on the trial at hand, not wanting to be distracted from the many priorities at the time, not wanting anything to negatively influence the outcome of the trial, feeling camera-shy and wanting to maintain our privacy. Despite all these feelings, however, we all felt that the story needed to be told. Plus, to Steve's credit, once we met him we felt very comfortable opening up to him and sharing our story.

For me, watching your plight unfold onscreen was an infuriating experience. The blatant racism of the government's chain-gang photo op of 19 Abacus employees especially made my blood boil. Are there particular scenes that are still difficult for you to watch?

The chain-gang scene is most difficult for all of us. Chanterelle went to the court arraignment that day and became very emotional, to the point of tears, when she saw what was happening. We all have had a deep emotional response to that scene. It was so blatantly wrong from a legal, moral and ethical standpoint. There was absolutely no need to humiliate these people in this dehumanizing way. This government action, which was intentionally showcased to a sea of media reporters and cameras, violated the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence.

In addition to this scene, we found the following other scenes very difficult to watch: the press conference announcing the indictment; (chief of the DA's Major Economic Crimes Bureau) Polly Greenberg's comment about the bank not being exonerated despite being fully acquitted; Cy Vance's comment about how he would not treat Abacus any differently than he would a South American or Indian bank; and Chanterelle explaining how she felt while working at the DA's office when that very same office first began investigating the bank.

Was there ever a point during production when you questioned the decision to appear on camera? And if so, how did Steve and the team reassure you?

In the beginning, we did question the decision to appear on camera for all the reasons mentioned. However, as a testament to Steve and his team, we quickly came to feel that we could trust them. Not only were they extremely skilled at their jobs, but they were so kind, very respectful and noninvasive. In fact, it was, to a certain extent, comforting to have them there all the time because we felt that they at least offered an open ear to what we were fighting for every day.

The doc doesn't give much of a sense of individual family members' personal lives. Did you negotiate what would be off-limits to filming before production began?

Frankly, this whole ordeal - meaning the investigation, indictment and trial - really dominated our lives. As such we were very protective of whatever personal lives we had in trying to keep that separate from the case. This desire to keep our personal lives separate probably carried into the filming. There was a time when Jill was asked to be filmed with her children, and she drew the line against that because she felt strongly that her children should not be exposed on camera at such a young age.

Also, Vera was asked to be filmed at her gym doing yoga, as this was one activity that helped her to decompress during the trial. However, it was not pursued ultimately (for which Vera was glad, as she felt uncomfortable as well in allowing this to invade her personal time). The team did succeed in filming Chanterelle during one of her swimming workouts (her way of decompressing from the stress of the trial), but this footage did not make it into the film.

Did participating in this film change anything for you - either for the case or personally?

This film has changed our family profoundly. It has restored our faith and hope that through this experience we may be able to help society learn from its mistakes, prevent similar situations from occurring and seek positive change. It has restored our family’s "face," which in Chinese culture and history refers to honor. It has given back our voice that we had lost for five years during the prosecution of this case. It has given us the leverage and ability to share this story with far more people than we had ever hoped or imagined. We never want this to happen again. We are truly appreciative to Steve, Mark and the entire film team for their creation.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at Filmmaker magazine. Her work can also be regularly read at Salon, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail. Currently, she serves as the features programmer at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.