Ever since he was a kid, Mark Keegan made movies. Super 8, 16 millimeter, videos, you name it, and he has been behind some kind of camera, telling a story on celluloid or video tape.

He didn't leave that passion behind when he grew up. Even though he lives in New York City and holds down three jobs--teaching high school chemistry in Harlem and computer programming and biology in local colleges--he still is making films. But not ordinary or commercial-oriented movies.

His latest work, The Word Universe: A Journey to West Africa, his first professional motion picture, is a documentary that tells the story of Keegan's journey back to West Africa to find his best friend. The 91-minute film had its world premiere at the Lincoln Center in New York City and was screened at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in Seattle last November, drawing favorable reviews.

Mark Keegan on location in Liberia. Photo courtesy Mark Keegan.

"I want to move people," says Keegan, a Spokane native. "I want to entertain, educate, inspire and move. To enhance our lives after we walk out of the theater."

That drive has always been with Keegan, who came to the UW to earn a B.S. in zoology in 1980. He worked in medical research before his concern for children in Third World nations inspired him to become a Peace Corps volunteer. He moved to Liberia in 1981, serving as a disease control worker in the small town in Cape Palmas. Four years later, he returned to the U.S., where he started teaching public school in Harlem. The would-be filmmaker assembled a slide show of his Liberia experience and presented it to anyone he could interest.

Later--after getting a doctorate in education from Columbia University--he went back into movie making. In 1994, with the Cape Palmas region engulfed in a horrific civil war, Keegan decided to return to Africa to find his best friend, a Liberian man he met earlier. With rented video equipment, he was a one-person crew--and a witness to appalling human rights violations throughout the country.

He was also disgusted by the way industrialized countries manipulate smaller, less developed nations into buying their weapons. That, in fact, might be the topic of his next documentary.

"I am sickened by the idea of larger countries selling weapons," he says. "And the U.S. is one of the big weapons exporters. Liberia was full of weapons, and it is incredibly dangerous there."

Three days after landing in Liberia, Keegan was thrilled to find his friend, a Liberian man by the name of Jefferson. "It was like dying and going to heaven," he says, "to hear voices of people I feared were dead."

His ties to Africa remain alive and strong. He would like to go back there to show his documentary--which is an unlikely proposition, given the uncertain truce now in effect in Liberia. He would also like to make more African films because, he says, fast-paced, industrialized nations can learn so much from life on that continent. "The larger question is how we can live in a world inundated with weapons and warlords," he says. "The people of Liberia seem to be visualizing their peace. We can learn from that."--Jon Marmor

To order his film The Word Universe on videocassette or to contact the director, send e-mail to Mark Keegan at

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