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New York Film Festival (#110 of 150)

New York Film Festival 2016 Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

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New York Film Festival 2016: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

Kartemquin Films

New York Film Festival 2016: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

Steve James displays his usual savvy for picking culturally resonant topics in his latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. This time it’s the oddly underreported story of Abacus, the eponymous family-owned Chinatown business, which is the only U.S. bank ever indicted for fraud in connection with the subprime mortgage scandal of the late 2000s. The rest of the film’s title comes from journalist Matt Taibbi, who explains that the banks actually responsible for the crisis were all deemed “too big to fail,” so none were prosecuted for their crimes. “Too big to fail translates to small enough to jail, and Abacus is small enough to jail,” he says.

New York Film Festival 2016 Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Karl Marx City

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New York Film Festival 2016: Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Karl Marx City

New York Film Festival

New York Film Festival 2016: Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Karl Marx City

That so much of the archival footage from Karl Marx City is banal only makes it more troubling. The material comes from the surveillance records of the Stasi, the East German secret police that conducted extensive domestic surveillance during the Cold War era to weed out the disloyal. As such, the copious video of public spaces—buildings, streets, parks—speaks to the totality of the state’s monitoring of citizens, so extreme that all of those areas aren’t simply documented, but covered from every conceivable angle, allowing directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker to piece together continuity editing of 30-year-old footage. As Epperlein grimly notes at one point, the high level of coverage used to spy on unaware citizens walking around the city produces perhaps the closest thing to documentary truth, a complete record of lives unperturbed by knowledge of the cameras.