by Julia Pierrepont III, Gao Shan
LOS ANGELES, March 1 (Xinhua) -- When the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for its 90th Oscar awards to be given on March 4, their line-up for Best Documentary Feature included, "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail."
It's a film about a tiny Chinese-American community bank indicted for fraud during the 2008 U.S. mortgage crisis that triggered a financial crisis worldwide.
The Academy Award-winning director, Steve James, best known for "Hoop Dreams," told Xinhua in a recent exclusive interview, "I gravitated toward documentaries because I wanted to tell stories, but I wanted to tell true stories about people in pivotal situations, at a crossroads in their lives. This is such a story."
This small story has had big impact. It won Best Documentary from the Critics Choice and the National Board of Review Awards. Movie City News called it "one of the best documentaries in recent years," while The Hollywood Reporter asserted it was "both an affirmation and an indictment of the American Dream."
In 2012, in the aftermath of the crippling 2008 mortgage crisis that sent the United States and world economies into a devastating tailspin for half a decade, New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance filed multiple charges of fraud against Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small, privately-owned bank that served New York's Chinatown community.
The ordeal began when Jill Sung, CEO of the bank founded by her father, Thomas Sung, noticed an anomaly in the bank's loan department and discovered one of the bank's lower-level employees had been falsifying mortgage applications.
Did they cover it up and skate with a simple fine like all the big banks did? No. They immediately reported it to the banking authorities and fired the employee. What happened next is what director James calls, "a wrongful persecution" and "an unequal application of justice."
Despite Sung's blowing the whistle on their employee's illicit activities and firing him the same day it was discovered, the bank itself became the target of a federal investigation into mortgage fraud.
"Big banks that engaged in damaging actions that caused so many people to lose their life savings and their homes were not punished. Yet here is a small community bank doing what banks are supposed to do -- lend to their community -- and this is the only one indicted," said James.
"That was mind-boggling to me," said the film's producer, Mark Mitten. "Because no other bank had been indicted, and knowing it was just a small community bank, the 2651st largest bank in America, with one of the lowest default rates on record, it was a head-scratcher. Why them?"
During the early 2000s, in the largely unregulated subprime mortgage industry, the biggest banks in America, like Citibank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Chase, Lehman Brothers, and many others, provided billions in risky mortgages to millions of unqualified applicants unable to afford them.
Bitter controversy arose when the U.S. government determined that the multi-million dollar banks were indeed "too big to fail." And some would complain, too big to indict, when not a single financial institution was brought to justice.
"Going after a big bank would have been a formidable undertaking for the DA's (district attorney's) office, and probably wouldn't even have come to trial yet," James said.
"So the big banks just had their wrists slapped," Mitten added. "They were fined, but never charged with felonies, after we bailed them out with 700 billion U.S. dollars of taxpayer money."
So, if the big banks were too big to indict, which ones were small enough? This is the question James and Mitten were compelled to ask in their insightful documentary.
The film shows the impact of the case on the Abacus bank owner, Thomas Sung, wife Hwei and their four daughters, Vera, Jill, Chanterelle and Heather.
"The Sung family is revered by the Chinese community they serve," Mitten said. "He started a bank to help people get mortgages and loans to expand their businesses when no other bank would, so he was always been looked up to."
He added, "Whenever you walked down the street with Mr. Sung, whether you met first generation, second generation, or third generation Chinese immigrants, they were all honored to know him."
When asked by Xinhua if he felt Sung and his daughters were singled out because of their ethnicity, the director said, "I want to believe it was (the DA's) sincere belief that fraud reached up into the highest levels of the bank, but what clouded his judgment was a belief that there was an opportunity ... to be a heroic DA and be the only one to bring a bank connected with the mortgage crisis to its knees."
"This was the perfect type of banking community for Cyrus to target, because he wouldn't have any concerns about political fallout. It's well known in New York that the Chinese immigrant community is not very politically engaged," James said.
"The DA thought they would be submissive because (the Chinese) don't stand up for themselves and wouldn't have the resources to fight back," Mitten said.
But, Sung and his family, determined to prove their innocence, decided to fight back. Sung told the press, "From a social justice point of view, it is our belief that our case should be an awakening call to the community that there are injustices in our society, even though we profess to be fair, democratic and just."
James was moved by the Sung family's plight when he met them. "Their decision to fight back, to save their bank and save their family name was inspiring. They were just such a compelling family: courageous, principled, funny and lively -- ideal subjects to follow."
"It cost (the Sung's) 10 million dollars and 5 years of their lives plus the toll it took on the family and particularly how Thomas aged over that time," he said.
"Now that it turned out the way it did, you can see a very different spirit about them," James told Xinhua. "There is a huge sense of relief, and joy."
The filmmakers have plans to distribute the film theatrically and via streaming online in China.
James visited China in 2009 as a VIP guest of the Beijing Film Academy at their International Documentary Conference in Beijing. "It was a great trip. Our hosts were lovely and we had some really great Master Classes for Chinese documentarians and students who wanted to get into the field."
He added, "There is such a rich tradition of filmmaking in China and the Beijing Film Academy is such a fertile birthplace for a lot of incredible filmmakers, including some incredible documentaries set in China that tell extraordinary stories that are highly regarded in this country, whether they are nominated for Oscars or not."
"It's important that everybody worldwide knows what happened. How the Sung's fought back, and how they won," Mitten said.