Steve James is one of the most recognizable names among the often more anonymous ranks of documentary filmmakers. His Hoop Dreams is one of the most acclaimed documentaries in history—Roger Ebert called it "one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime." It spawned a new generation of documentarians and, along with Michael Moore, Errol Morris, and Ken Burns, a resurgence of the genre.
The inaugural Full Frame Documentary Film Festival took place in 1998, four years after the release of Hoop Dreams, and in the twenty years since, James has been a familiar face at the festival. His new releases are usually featured, and he programmed a sports-themed track in 2009. His films were the subject of a retrospective in 2014, when he was honored with Full Frame's Tribute Award.
But this year is the first time James has been featured as the festival's opening-night film. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail chronicles the trials of the Sung family, Chinese immigrants and owners of Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown in New York City. Speciously accused of mortgage fraud, Abacus was the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The Sung family endured a five-year legal battle: an investigation in 2010, an indictment in 2012, and a trial in 2015.
In addition to discussing Abacus, which was produced in conjunction with Frontline and will air on PBS later this year following a spring/summer theatrical run, we spoke with James about the legacy of Full Frame at age twenty and the current existential crisis on the documentary's essential terrain: the truth.
INDY: The bulk of Abacus contains footage of the Sung family during the time of their trial. What initially drew your attention to their story so you could obtain real-time access?
STEVE JAMES: If I had been reading the papers, I never would have heard about this case, because the mainstream media, including the venerable New York Times in the backyard of this story, did not really cover it. I found out about it through one of my producers, Mark Mitten, who was friends with the family and had a friendship with Vera [Sung] that went back ten years. He brought the case to my attention around the time their trial was about to start. He said, 'No one is telling this story, but this bank, of all banks, is the only U.S. bank being criminally prosecuted for mortgage fraud in the wake of that crisis.' That was intriguing, so when I spent a few days with the Sungs filming, that convinced me that not only was the story itself significant, but the family's story would be an excellent one to tell.
How does your filmmaking approach change when you're making a film for Frontline?
All my films have ended up with a television partner in some fashion, sometimes after the fact. Different partners have different expectations. Everybody wants it to be accurate and provable, but it also affects the kind of film you make. For instance, The Interrupters is a more observational film, where we spent a year in the streets of Chicago following around these violence interrupters. We didn't have to go through the same kind of legal and journalistic vetting process on that film that we did with Frontline on [Abacus].
Frontline wasn't involved from the get-go, so throughout the trial, we couldn't call up the district attorney's office and tell them we're doing a film for Frontline. They didn't come aboard until near the end of the trial or afterward. They brought with them a coproducer, Nick Verbitsky, who has worked with Frontline on numerous financial stories. Nick became part of our team, and he was tireless in seeking out the prosecution side of this case, trying to track every juror and approach them individually about being interviewed. It also helped enormously to be able to say we're Frontline now, because their imprimatur brings with it respect and clout.
Abacus states a point of view, from the perspective of the Sung family, that there were real questions whether this trial should have been brought against them to begin with. But despite that, we went to great lengths to articulate the case against them, and I feel confident that we did that.
You earned acclaim early in your career with Hoop Dreams and Stevie, which spotlighted little-known subjects. You've also directed documentaries about more popular subjects, like Allen Iverson and Roger Ebert. Does your filmmaking approach change depending on the familiarity of your subject?
That's a really good question. With both Allen Iverson and Roger Ebert, those are stories that couldn't be adequately told in a complete observational or cinéma vérité approach, which worked well for films like Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and Stevie. You could tell their stories that way if, say, Allen Iverson had consented to let me follow him around for a few months, which he didn't. With Roger Ebert, we did have that access, but he died four months into our filming, which wasn't anticipated.
When you're dealing with a famous person, people bring their expectations of who that person is before they even see your film. In the others films I've done, like Abacus, the viewers' complete knowledge and understanding of these individuals comes from the film. A profound responsibility comes with putting people who aren't known into the public sphere. With famous subjects, it's a different sort of responsibility. For example, Roger was mostly universally loved—I wouldn't have made that film if I didn't admire the man. But I felt a duty to show some of the rougher edges of Roger that people may not be aware of: the fact that he was a bit of a womanizer in his youth, he struggled with alcohol, and that his relationship with Gene Siskel was more bitter than most people realized from just watching their show.
Full Frame is a familiar festival for you. It also celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. What does Full Frame mean to you, and what is its ongoing significance in the broader documentary filmmaking community?
I feel like I've watched Full Frame evolve over the years. They staked a claim pretty early on as an important doc festival, but I think early on there was a clear political point of view expressed through the film selections, which is true for a lot of festivals. As [Full Frame] has evolved, it has graduated to finding its own voice in terms of the programming. One of the things I noticed in this year is that, yes, they're showing some films that played at Sundance and other festivals, but [programming director] Sadie Tillery has selected quite a few films that I'm not familiar with, and I think that reflects their own voice.
What's always been true about Full Frame is that it's a very welcoming festival for filmmakers. I grew up in Virginia, so I know what Southern hospitality should be. Full Frame embodies that in the best sense. The community and city are always welcoming, and the staff is terrific to deal with. It's beautifully set up in terms of venues and their proximity. Filmmakers love going there.
At its essence, documentary filmmaking is about a search for truth. Two weeks ago, the cover of Time asked, "Is Truth Dead?" In our current social and political climate, are the challenges for documentary filmmakers heightened?
One of the real challenges for documentary filmmakers is that there's a perception, not unfounded, that documentaries are a largely liberal, politically left art form. That's changing some—there are people coming to documentaries more as an art form than an activist. But there's still a very strong driving force of activism that runs through many documentaries that are being made, and I have no problem with that. With that comes a greater responsibility to the tenets and ethics of journalism. If you're making a film for a cause, you need to look at it more deeply and complexly than just a rallying cry.
I wouldn't call a lot of the films I've done journalism, either. But that doesn't relieve me of the responsibility of presenting the world in a three-dimensional and complex way, even though the films have a point of view. There's nothing wrong with point of view. I would just like to see those viewpoints more consistently hard-won within the films instead of arrived at before you make them. I always go in with ideas of what my films are about and what they might say, and I'm always amazed at how little I really understood until I got in the middle of making them. I try to be true to what I encounter and not just look for confirmation of what I believe.
But no, I don't believe truth is dead. How could I keep doing what I do?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Too Small To Bail."