Review: God’s Work (Bijan Mottahedeh) by Mark Dignam

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

In God’s Work, a video of just under six minutes, Bijan Mottahedeh and his team nimbly present the dichotomous stances of two sections of our global community: the average working person (represented by a small California town) set against the Wall Street money man. If Rosie the Riveter stood for the patriotic dedication and work ethic of the 1940s war effort, surely the stock trader has come to represent the breakdown of that community spirit into crass individualism and monumental hubris.

The video’s title “trades” on a quote from Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein in which he attempts both to appeal to the trend of overtly Christian rhetoric in U.S. public discourse and to paint himself as just a man doing his job. The disconnect between this pretense and the human debris left in the wake of “God’s work” is even more transparently voiced in the video’s primary verbal element: excerpts from emails (obtained by post-crash investigators) of the “fabulous Fab,” Fabrice Tourre, another Goldman Sachs executive, and one of the few to have been convicted. 

Mottahedeh’s montage intermingles black-and-white video footage of post-crash Congressional hearings with stills from protests on Wall Street and in Stockton, California, which had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country after the 2008 crash. Fab’s words are narrated over an almost improv minimalist jazz score by John Kilburn. For me, this evoked a link between the 21st century hacktivists and occupiers now pushing our town square dialogue and the more activist-leaning Beat poets of old. One could imagine Ginsburg, in particular, greatly enjoying this video. 

The pacing is measured, no rush, no hammers flying — this shameful, solemn story needs to be handled adroitly, and it is. The skill of those involved in the video comes through in their ability to let the storyline stand tall and unencumbered — the artists call attention to the reality of Fab’s words and the fallout from the 2008 crash rather than to themselves.

Balancing art and activism is a high-wire act that is difficult to master — perhaps why only the bravest attempt it. My own feeling is that once there is an attempt to deliver a message or impart specific information, then it should be conveyed clearly. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those, particularly in the “higher” echelons of art, who choose to leave almost everything up to interpretation. In the artist-activist genre, the key is to find that sweet spot where the message is delivered clearly and artfully, not hammered home like something from an ad agency. God’s Work does this very admirably. Its tone is appropriately strong and emotive, but it also has a craft and complexity that distinguish it as an art video not a propaganda piece. 

Without diminishing any of this praise, I do feel the video has one flaw that initially roused my attention, but then kind of deflated me, probably in equal measure. I’m referring to the voiceover capturing Fab’s nonchalance and indifference to those left behind in the financial earthquake he helped to create. While mostly effective in tone, pacing and delivery, the voiceover also gets lost in the audio mix at times. I won’t dispute the advantages of making an audience listen a little harder, but ultimately there are too many sections where even a careful listener may not discern the Fabulous Fab’s words in all their terrible glory. Adding subtitles, perhaps even just in the most muddled sections, would be one way to address the issue. This is a relatively minor shortcoming in an otherwise very strong and powerfully impacting work — but one that sticks out in part because everything else is done so well.

I’m grateful to Bijan and his team for contributing God’s Work to HEArt. It deserves to be seen by the widest possible community — both as art, and as a potent reminder of a criminally destructive mindset that created deep suffering in Stockton and indeed around the world.

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Mark Dignam grew up in the North Side Dublin suburb of Finglas. Mark left Finglas for Dublin at 18, busking on the city streets along with friends. He released the acclaimed Poetry and Songs From the Wheel in 1995. The album, named a top Ten Best Debut of 1995 by Ireland's Hot Press Magazine, cementing Mark's reputation as a powerful voice on the singer-songwriter circuit. He's continued to release records, from 1997's In a Time of Overstatement, a stark collection of spiritual and political musings, to 2005's Box Heart Man, recorded in Pittsburgh, where it was chosen as one of WYEP’s top picks for 2005. Mark has played with The Swell Season, David Gray, Billy Bragg, Joan Armatrading, Richard Thompson, Mike Nichols (of The Alarm) and many others. Today, he tours with his band, The House of Song, living in Pittsburgh with his two beautiful children.