Rock Soup

Director: Lech Kowalski

Institute History

  • 1992 Sundance Film Festival


In the tradition of cinema vérité, Rock Soup is the touching chronicle of a group of homeless people on New York’s Lower East Side who band together to create an outdoor soup kitchen in a park called La Plaza Cultural. Living under a tarp among discarded wooden pallets, this unlikely urban tribe creates a gathering place and a unique sense of community and self-sufficiency. Then they discover that the city plans to build housing for the elderly on the site of their encampment. The ensuing conflict, which pits the elderly against the homeless, begins as a tragic dialogue and deteriorates into a shouting match, and reveals the Housing Authority Board to be an uninterested group of bureaucrats. What compounds the tragedy is the realization that this is not an isolated story; similar situations exist for the homeless all across America. It amounts to a national disgrace. These people are like victims of a natural disaster—wandering aimlessly, trying to cope, living in the rubble—except no one is rescuing them. They are entirely on their own.

Shot in 1988, the film describes a day in the life of the Rainbow Soup Kitchen and the people who keep it going. Each person has a story to tell. Leader Kalif Beacon’s description of rock soup, as he stands dressed in his star-spangled chimney-sweep’s hat, is the gemstone of the piece. You never know when the recipe might come in handy. “I feel like I’m in another country,” a black man says as he washes himself in the steamy morning air, as a tough young woman, wearing a Union Cavalry cap, tends the kettle on the wood-burning fire. Only the shrill sounds of the city, sirens mostly, in the background, remind us of where these people’s lives are being played out. Rock Soup is a powerful and moving study that is really unforgettable.

As a historical document about the detritus of a highly competitive, throwaway society, Rock Soup will keep on simmering long after the fires have burned out. The Rainbow Kitchen is gone, but its patrons are still out there. Instead of getting better, things have only gotten worse.

— Lawrence Smith

Screening Details

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