Hope Inspires Victory: HIV-Positive Filmmaker Richard Flores
Richard Flores is a gentle man with a kind spirit. The 31-year-old filmmaker lives with his girlfriend in Brooklyn, New York. He recently asked me to be a part of a documentary he's creating, titled HIV: Hope Inspires Victory. I signed on, happy to be a part of any creative project that helps continue the global conversation about HIV. What I didn't know was that Richard is living with HIV. Not only that, he was born with the virus.
"I was born [HIV] positive on Aug. 10, 1986," he said. "Me being HIV positive, I did not have a choice on that. My father gave it to my mom, and he did not tell her."
Richard was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and into a world in the midst of panic over the AIDS pandemic. His mother and absent father were both HIV-positive drug users; both his brothers were also born with HIV. When Richard was born, the doctors didn't think he would live very long.
"I was in the midst of it all," he said, "and I was a baby. You know, people [in the 1980s] were passing away, grown adults were passing away, and me, being an infant, I was always very sick. I had tubes in my throat and my mouth, and needles, you know, trying to keep me alive. And the doctors said to my mom and my family that I was going to survive less than five years."
Growing Up With HIV
Because there were no available treatments to fight HIV infection at the time, his medical team did everything it could to keep baby Richard alive. "The first thing from my memory, I believe, I started off with a nurse that used to come to my home every two weeks, and they used to put an intravenous needle in my arm, and I had a liquid, a big liquid, and I used to sit there for three hours."
As he got older and medicines began to be available, Richard was put on oral drugs. "I didn't know how to swallow the pills," he said, "so I used to crunch the pills and put it in my orange juice. And it made it nasty! It tasted horrible." He learned to take such treatments in stride. "It was all part of growing up," he said.
But, around 12 years old, his doctors explained the gravity of an HIV diagnosis. "They said that the way I reacted was that I was screaming and crying. I don't remember that I reacted to it. I don't remember that anyone told me," Richard explained, "but it's in all the paperwork at the doctors."
While still very young, Richard moved to Harlem, where he was raised by his grandmother and his uncle. "My mother wasn't fit to take care of me," he said. She struggled with alcohol and drug addiction.
Richard never knew his father. "His name was Richard Rodriguez. He got murdered in Rikers Island, in prison. I never saw a photo of my dad. I don't know what he looks like." He continued, "Everyone has a photo of their parents but me."
Richard has learned a few details about his dad from family members, but not much. "They said that he was he was skinny, and he had long hair a little bit. And he was funny. He was a handsome man." His father was also infected with HIV. Richard said, "He got HIV by drugs."
Richard's mother passed away in 2002. Along with her HIV, the demons of addiction overtook her. "She stopped drinking or drugs or anything like that for years," Richard said, "but all that came back to her. And I think her liver was damaged and other things." She was just 40 years old when she passed.
"I didn't mention my two brothers. My older brother's name was Joseph and my younger brother's name was Francisco. The family called him Frankie." Both of Richard's brothers died in 1990. "They both passed away of HIV, but it turned to AIDS because their immune system wasn't strong enough. So, I've been to a lot of funerals."
Becoming a Filmmaker
With so many tragedies and challenges in his life, it would have been easy for him to give up. Instead, Richard Flores has become a filmmaker.
"I was always with a camera since I was a small kid," he said. "I used to run around with the camera, and I was always filming every single one of my family members. I think I drove them crazy with the filming!"
Richard fell in love with the movies at a young age. "My favorite movie is Interview With a Vampire," he said. But a girl also helped peak his interest in film.
"One day, I was in junior high school," he explained. "I was with my girlfriend at the time and, basically, we were trying to find a make-out place, a make-out room. In the auditorium, in the second balcony, there was a room. I went in there, and I start make out with the girl. I turned to my right, and there was a camera, spotlight, film equipment. And, at that very moment, I not only fell in love with the girl, but I fell in love with so many things. Film, you know?"
"My first interview, the person I first interviewed was my mom, who came to sleep over one day." Richard didn't get to see his mom every day, so he took advantage of the situation and got her on film. "Yeah, it was me and her in a room alone, and I don't know why, but I decided to just ask her a few questions. It was when I was 16 years old." Looking back, Richard values that decision. "I'm happy that I had a chance to film my mom."
Richard hasn't had any formal film training; he's learned all about cameras, sound, light, and editing through trial and error. "I just picked up a camera and started filming in the streets," he said. "I learned the hard way! By my mistakes and my experience."
Later, Richard discovered the El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center in East Harlem. "They teach filmmaking. I was in film producing there for three years. It's a mix of school and learning the hard way."
Richard began making independent documentaries. "The first documentary I ever did was on animal rights (Iris)," he said. "Then, I did a documentary on feminism called Last Looks." Richard has done several more docs, including the recent LGBT: My Flag, My Rights, My Life!
Now he's turning his lens on a topic that's close to him: HIV. "This documentary film is about HIV awareness," Richard said. "Telling people's stories. Some have been judged in their life because they are HIV positive, by their family and friends. And the history of the virus, and discrimination, and so much more."
Richard has interviewed diverse and dynamic people for his film. So far, the cast of HIV: Hope Inspires Victory includes (besides me) Donnie Bell (aka Sir Pup Eros) and Stephan Hart, creator of the YouTube channel Hart Talks. Joshua Luckey-Riddle has written a song for the film called "This Spirit."
Richard hopes to have the documentary completed by the fall, but he has hit a small snag. He needs a new laptop to be able to edit his work. "Currently, I'm saving all my pennies," he said, "saving to buy a new laptop because my last one got damaged. I love to edit. I like things perfect and right." Once the film is completed, he hopes to have a public screening and to enter the work into festivals.
Richard's long-term goal is to continue creating films, including fictional works: to have a career as a film director. I asked him whether Hollywood was in his future. He laughed and said: "Yes and no. I want to make films. And if Hollywood picks them up, that'd be great, but my passion is to create and to tell a story."
You can find Richard Flores' independent films on his YouTube Channel, Richard Plus Films.