Until this year, the closest thing filmmaker Ted Gaty had to industry experience was teaching middle school.

The 69-year-old Salem native taught computer applications and would work multimedia presentations into his lesson plans when Adobe Premiere was in its infancy. "Kids would go out and film things, and put it on tape, and then we'd try to digitize it," he says. "I wasn't unfamiliar with the process of telling a story through film."

But when Gaty retired in 2004, he left that process behind. It wasn't until Ted's son Sam Gaty became executive director at NW Documentary in April that Ted rekindled his interest. He started taking classes at NW Documentary in June.

"I picked up a thread that I'd left behind," says Gaty. "But the storytelling was the same."

Gaty is one of nearly 10 amateur filmmakers whose work will screen as part of NW Documentary's Homegrown DocFest, the culmination of  the organization's documentary classes. All under 15 minutes, one film follows a young African-American man's experiences on and off the basketball court. Another profiles a Native American artist becoming a mason. Gaty's film, Cheers, tracks a Salem-based ukulele band made up of older women from the area.

All of [these films] have a rougher, raw kind of feel," says Sam Gaty, who helped his father film part of his documentary (though Sam insists his own influence was negligible).

The story in his film follows a ukulele band called Cheers, formed in Salem by a group of  women "in their 50s, 60s and 70s." For several of its members, it was their first time playing an instrument.

Gaty stitches together footage of a performance in Keizer, Ore., that was shot before his class even began. In between shots of Cheers performing the likes of "This Land Is Your Land," the players talk about why they joined the group, play music or love the ukulele.

"I tried taking guitar lessons…but it was a little lonely," says Cheers member Marsha Graciosa. "But when I read the article for a ukulele band, I thought, 'This is my group.'"

Gaty is quick to point out the faults in his film. "I probably should have gotten more A-Roll," he says sheepishly.
But his interest in Cheers speaks to the ways film can connect its audience and its creator to the past. He dedicated his film to his later mother and mother-in-law. "They were almost on their deathbed…but they could remember the songs of their youth," he says. "Word for word, tune for tune. That's the way you communicated with them at the end."

In the film's most powerful sequence, Gaty interviews the band's oldest member, Gloria Jones, as she recounts her brother's battle with Alzheimer's. The only way she could connect with him, she tells us, was through music. In Cheers, she plays his favorite song, "You Are My Sunshine." Later Gaty orchestrates another sequence over a montage of serene photos of tropical islands, mountains and forests taken by his wife in Hawaii.

"Music is probably what keeps me going," says Jones. "Even though you're getting older and older, the music is still there, and it always is."

SEE IT: NW Documentary's Homegrown DocFest is at Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., cstpdx.com. 7 pm Friday, August 25. $8.