‘ZIELINSKI’ SHOWS A MOST UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTER
written by Nina Metz
November 30, 2011
When charges against former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky first surfaced last month, many of us wondered how allegations of sexual abuse had gone uninvestigated for so long.
Filmmaker Ryan Walker had this to say about the subject on his blog not so long ago: “To those who have seen ‘Zielinski’” — Walker’s new documentary (made with partner Chase Thompson) about an obscure conspiracy theorist named John Zielinski — “this whole story sounds very familiar.”
For decades Zielinski has claimed that the CIA is running a child sex ring, among other crimes. Taken at face value, his wild stories of government-sanctioned pedophilia sound bonkers. “Not since the Kennedy assassination has there been such a coverup involving child slavery, drugs and murder!” reads the text from one of Zielinski’s ’80s-era video manifestoes included in the film. He also claims that there are injustices involving “CIA money laundering, mixed with North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) money, child prostitution, child slavery, satanism mingled with political figures, both state and federal.”
Zielinski’s story is a peculiar one, and the film paints an incomplete if fascinating picture. Not much is disclosed about his mental state during the first half of his life. A photojournalist based for many years in Iowa, Zielinski was on the road to a promising career in the 1960s and ’70s, getting his work published in Life magazine and the New York Times, as well as in the pages of the Tribune. During Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 trip to Chicago, Zielinski took a remarkable photo of the civil rights leader that hangs in Zane’s office.
A court case that Zielinski lost in the early 1980s (involving a dispute with his book printer) seems to be the fork in the road, but why this particular event knocked him off course remains unclear.
For the past 30 years he has been dismissed by pretty much everyone as nut case. Zielinski all but presented himself as a film subject two years ago when he wandered into a public access television station in Columbia, Mo., where Walker and Thompson were working. “We were the only ones there, and this guy walks in with a cruddy VHS camera that was covered in a wasp nest and he said: ‘I have a tape stuck in here that will bring down the U.S. government, I need your help!’” Zielinski made several return trips to the TV station, and the idea for the documentary was born.
“I had some concerns that they wouldn’t be empathetic,” Zane said. “I think they get maybe 60 or 70 percent right. There’s still huge holes (in the film) — there are so many funnier stories that I can tell that don’t make it in the movie.”
Zane was upbeat during our chat, but his demeanor belied a complicated family situation. “I was born in ’73; my parents got divorced in ’79 but they didn’t tell me until ’83.” He has an older brother with severe autism, and it is in these portions of the film that Zielinski seems most stable — a patient father with his son. Zane disagrees with how his father is portrayed (and is currently not on speaking terms with his mother, who he feels was untruthful in the film). He is also, in some ways, his father’s son — a touch eccentric (he calls his father John), and is eager to talk your ear off while remaining vague when comes to the nitty gritty. “As far as I know, he is still in Columbia,” he said when asked where his father lives these days.
“Zielinski” screens at 8 p.m. Friday at Chicago Filmmakers. Co-director Ryan Walker and Zielinski’s son Zane will be in attendance for a post-show Q&A. For more info go to chicagofilmmakers.org.