Photographer John Zielinski’s stumbled upon a diabolical plot “bigger than the Kennedy assassination.” Or has he? Two Missouri filmmakers spent two years trying to find out.
BY JORDAN OAKES
If John Zielinski—the subject of a new documentary that bears his name—stuck exclusively to photography, he might be regarded as one of the all-time greats. Take his 1967 shots of the Amish. The photographer traveled to their pastoral environment and blended into the Amish woodwork. In the process, he captured unguarded moments that existed outside of the horse-and-carriage stereotypes. Even a corncob is rendered with rustic splendor, brushed with just the right stroke of sunlight to bring out the puzzle of its multicolored kernels. Zielinski’s photo of Martin Luther King Jr. captures the pensive side of a man whose iconic images usually show him in the throes of passionate oration. Unsurprisingly, Zielinski easily sold his photographs to famous magazines like Life. But Zielinski is even larger than life.
“He made his living for 20 years with his photos and postcards,” says Ryan Walker, who co-directed the documentary Zielinski (zielinskifilm.com). “If you go to Iowa now and ask people, a lot of them would remember his name and have his books in their house—but they would have no idea what he’s doing now.”
If the story of Zielinski stopped there, it would be the miniature legend of a talented photographer who deserved to be famous. But really, it’s a tale in which fact and fantasy are like clever identical twins, switching places at the whim of the viewer’s perspective. Zielinski, you see, isn’t merely a photojournalist; he’s an investigative reporter. And his namesake documentary depicts a man on an often-intrusive mission, knocking on the doors of public officials and barging in on press conferences—a man who alleges a giant cover-up, wherein criminals and public officials are not only in bed together, but also have the common dream of destroying him.
“He’s been telling the same story for 25 years,” says Walker, who, like his co-director Chase Thompson, lives in Columbia, Mo. “He draws on a lot of facts. But he draws a lot of conclusions that I don’t agree with at all.” Like its namesake’s ideas, Zielinski the movie has been years in the making. “We come from cable-access [TV],” explains Walker. “It started as just a little project.” In the early ’90s, Zielinski moved down from Iowa, presumably to find a new audience for his unconventional theories when his home state tired of them.
“He would come into the station trying to make programming, doing his thing, and bringing in his video. We were just around,” recalls Walker, “and kind of forced to listen to this guy.” Undoubtedly, the directors-to-be shared an incredulous glance or two as Zielinski went on about drug trafficking, underage sex rings, and secret societies of devil-worshippers, much of it, he alleged, reaching up to the Iowa state government—even the CIA. Walker was impressed—not so much by the theories, but by the theorizer. “I just thought this guy was such a character, with all his footage and books and photos. We were like, ‘Are you hearing this? Can you believe this guy?’ It just fell in our laps, pretty much.”
In the documentary, it’s hard to tell whether we’re watching paranoia personified or a man who’s done his homework. Zielinski claims that a printing company is behind a plot to discredit—even harm—him. It all began with a bitter court battle. In another scene, we watch him preparing horse-manure–compost tea in a yard full of junk. At one point, he discusses the time his hard drive fell off a shelf and into a bucket of water. Zielinski believes “something shifted” while he slept. When asked about why the bucket was there in the first place, he reveals that he had no running water. In a different clip, Zielinski recounts a fire that devastated his residence in the Ozarks, destroying files and irreplaceable negatives. It’s a pivotal point in the movie. Here was his opportunity to blame the conspirators, the people who, he believed, were out to silence him. But we get no conspiratorial fireworks, only Zielinski’s admission that he started the blaze himself—on accident.
Zielinski isn’t crazy—at least not completely. The film demonstrates that he has supporters and corroborators in high places, including the FBI (for whom, he claims, he once worked). It features news clips about busted crime rings and exposed conspiracies that are somehow connected to the ones he’s alleged. One of his disciples is the cameraman from his public-access show, who’s convinced there’s a plan by those in power for a new world order. And Zielinski’s references to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination betray an ironic self-awareness. A conspiracy theorist shouldn’t refer to other conspiracy theories. They should be taken one at a time, not thought of in terms of lineage. At times, the stuff in Zielinski is to be taken with a molecule of salt—at other moments, the claims seem almost plausible and supported. Zielinski appears to be rooted in truth, but at some juncture the “truth” resembles the point at which human hair transitions into extensions.
Zielinski isn’t exactly a family movie. Yet in some sense, it is. One of Zielinski’s sons, a lawyer, discusses his father’s plight in such disconnected terms that it’s not immediately clear they’re even related. The subtext seems to be, “Give it up, Dad.” A rather touching scene shows Zielinski visiting his other son, who’s autistic. He makes the drive regularly. In a way, the brethren can be viewed as representing the two sides of their controversial father—qualities that within Zielinski himself are blended like…well, horse-manure tea.
If there is one main criticism of Zielinski—which, incidentally, doesn’t pass judgment on its subject—it’s that it’s too short. By the time we begin sorting fact from fiction, the 66-minute movie is over. “There’s way more to the story,” promises Walker. “There’s a lot more material, and we shot the stuff so long ago.” Will there be a longer version with updates? “I’m tempted,” he admits. For now, he has an already–award-winning documentary to promote. He says that occasionally Zielinski himself will appear at the screenings. This is very unusual for the subject of a not-always-flattering documentary. (You’ll never see the Rolling Stones promoting Gimme Shelter.) But as befits his role as a photographer—the one he’s best at—Zielinski’s a colorful character who manages to convince us of at least one thing: Not everything in life is black-and-white.
$10. January 6 through 8, 7 p.m. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp, 314-773-3363, offbroadwaystl.com.