A soup kitchen for the homeless, set up, staffed and run by the homeless themselves, is the subject of Lech Kowalski's ROCK SOUP, an engaging documentary filmed in the vicinity of Tompkins Square Park on New York City's Lower East Side.
On a rainy late afternoon, a series of tight, panning shots introduces us to the muddy lot with lean-tos and tents on East 9th Street called the "Plaza Culturelle" where the Rainbow Kitchen is located. Negotiating the wooden boards set up on the ground, Kowalski's camera focuses on the steaming
vat of food that serves the poor, a recurring image in the film. Most, but by no means all, of the homeless are male Blacks and Hispanics to whom we are introduced only after the establishing scenes of anarchic poverty.
As the film continues there is an emerging pattern to life at the "Plaza." The same wood-fed fires that prepare the meals also serve to heat water for washing, and with the next day's dawn we see some of the regulars washing and preparing for their 500 or 1,000 daily customers. Though some of the
food is donated, to judge from negotiations between the cook, an unnamed woman with kepi and boots and a local well-wisher, most of it is literally found among restaurant and grocery store discards. The wood is simply pried away from shipping pallets and fed into a simple fire over which rests a
The Rainbow Kitchen owes its existence to Halif Beacon, a bearded fellow with a tall chimney sweeper's hat adorned with the stars and bars of a folded confederate flag. With squinting, amused eyes, Beacon tells the story of "rock soup," depicting the communal process by which each individual adds
a needed element to prepare a meal. And, indeed, the "Plaza Culturelle" would appear an anarchist success story bound by the limits of the burned out tenement and the patrolling pairs of police glimpsed through the chain-link fence that surrounds the lot. New York's city planners, however, seem to
have had other plans for the lot occupied by Beacon and his friends.
The proposal to build a housing project for the elderly on the same grounds stimulates Beacon and some of his allies to voice their protest at a community board meeting. With a droll deftness, Beacon unrolls official maps and charts to prove that the ground is unsuited to large construction, while
others mix a cogent political analysis with religious imagery and apocalyptic visions. Sadly, there are also those who need the housing, so the community discussion degenerates into screaming matches between the elderly poor and the homeless, young poor, while the handsomely attired politicos and
housing planners look on in discomfort.
The film ends almost as it had begun with a camera panning literally at the ground underfoot where the litter is marked with graffiti of the people who support the Rainbow Kitchen.
Lech Kowalski has had a long interest in the lives of people on the Lower East Side. In 1983, Kowalski filmed some incidents in the life of a drug addict in GRINGO, with sympathy alarming to some critics. Filmed in 1988, ROCK SOUP is also very sympathetic towards its subject and skirts the serious
question of any addiction among its players. The degradation of the public shelters is discussed, ironically by a friendly food deliverer, while one of the kitchen regulars recalls the brutal hazing to which Beacon was subjected when he first appeared. While several of the regulars speak fluently
and movingly of their plight, some of the conversations among the habituees of the kitchen are almost incoherent and garbled.
Despite its charms, as an example of self-help and cooperation, the kitchen is a limited boon. The muddy walkways and scrounged food are no solution to a serious dilemma, a position voiced in ROCK SOUP by a local city council member, despite the romantic appeal of Beacon and his eccentric friends.
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