Justin Kurzel’s controversial Port Arthur massacre film Nitram may have dominated the categories but the 2021 Australian Academy of Cinema Television Arts awards were quite literally taken over by tributes to David Gulpilil – whose face adorned the sails of the venue, the Sydney Opera House, on Wednesday evening.

Gulpilil, who died last week after a long illness, was honoured during the annual ceremony, which had already planned to award him the Longford Lyell lifetime achievement award.

As the delayed broadcast of the awards began on Network Ten, images of the Arnhem Land-born actor and dancer were projected on to the Opera House, celebrating his roles in film classics including Walkabout, Storm Boy, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Tracker.

The film My Name Is Gulpilil collected the awards for best documentary and best editing of a documentary.

Jack Thompson, Baz Luhrmann, Leah Purcell, Hugh Jackman, Bryan Brown, Phillip Noyce and Baker Boy were among those paying tribute to Gulpilil.

Thompson said the actor nurtured a special relationship with the camera, and confronted the enormous challenge of navigating two worlds.

Jack Thompson and Rachel Perkins pay tribute to David Gulpilil
‘A superb actor’: Jack Thompson and Rachel Perkins pay tribute to David Gulpilil. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images for AFI

“He brought with him from Arnhem Land absolute magic,” Thompson said. “Even though he always said he was just being himself [on film], he was a superb actor.”

Natasha Wanganeen, who starred in the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence at the age of 15, said Gulpilil was the first face she had seen on television “who looked like one of us”. The hip-hop artist Baker Boy dedicated his performance to Gulpilil – “An inspiration to all First Nations people, artists and performers … you are forever in our hearts.”

Leah Purcell described him as “an inspiration, a teacher, a songman of the highest order and a man of deep culture. We will miss him.”

‘It’s a very sore wound for most Tasmanians’

Eight of the 2021 film awards were won by Nitram, including best film and best film director.

The creators of the film, which depicts the lead-up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, acknowledged its controversial provenance.

Justin Kurzel accepts the Aacta Award for best direction, for Nitram.
‘It took a lot of courage to make this film’: Justin Kurzel accepts the Aacta Award for best direction, for Nitram. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images for AFI

“It took a lot of courage make this film … it was very tough on cast and crew,” said the director, Justin Kurzel, who lives in Tasmania with his daughters and wife, the actor Essie Davis. Davis collected best supporting actress for her role as the mass killer’s benefactor.

“We had known from outset we were working with sensitive material – and for some, fairly confronting,” said a producer, Nick Batzias. “We understand it’s not a film for everyone.”

Speaking on the red carpet before the awards, Davis said that as a Tasmanian, she understood the rawness of the subject matter. “It’s a very sore wound for most Tasmanians, and we live there,” she said.

“People are still very sensitive and I was so nervous when Justin first talked about it. But then I read it and Shaun [Grant, who won best original screenplay] had written such a great script, I knew it was a story that had to be told.”

The Texas actor Caleb Landry Jones mastered an Australian accent to play the role of the mass shooter, Martin Bryant. He won for best actor in film, a gong he also picked up at this year’s Cannes film festival. Anthony LaPaglia collected best supporting actor for his portrayal of Bryant’s father and Judy Davis was awarded best actress in film for her role as Bryant’s mother.

The Dry, a mystery drama thriller based on Jane Harper’s bestselling book – directed by Robert Connolly and starring Eric Bana – won best adapted screenplay in a film for Connolly and Harry Crips. It also won best cinematography in a film for Stefan Duscio.

ABC wins big

The Newsreader was also celebrated on Wednesday night, winning in four categories including best drama and best direction in a drama or comedy. The ABC drama series is set in an Australian newsroom in 1986 and covers the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

The cast and crew of The Newsreader
The cast and crew of The Newsreader. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images for AFI

Anna Torv, who was not present at the ceremony, won best leading actress in a drama series.

Best miniseries or telefeature went to the ABC drama Fires, a six-part dramatisation of the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season directed by Ana Kokkinos, Michael Rymer and Kim Mordaunt. Fires also won best cinematography and best sound.

The series’ co-creator, Belinda Chayko, accepted the award with a passionate speech about climate change. “People said it was too soon to tell this story but if we don’t act now it will be too late to save this wild and beautiful place,” she said.

Rachel Griffiths won best supporting actress for the ABC series Total Control, and the ABC’s Bluey won best children’s program.

Rachel Griffiths accepts an Aacta award for her role in Total Control
Rachel Griffiths accepts an Aacta award for her role in Total Control. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for AFI

Scott Ryan collected two awards, for best lead actor in a drama for Fox’s Mr Inbetween. He also won best screenplay in TV for episode six of the series.

The SBS series New Gold Mountain won for costume design and original score.

Rebel Wilson, Sarah Snook and Taika Waititi were among the night’s high-profile presenters.

Tributes to Bert Newton and Peter Cundall

Two other seminal figures in Australian screen who died this year were honoured during the ceremony.

Rove McManus described the screen veteran Bert Newton as a titan of the industry.

“No matter how brightly his star shone, he always made sure to have time for emerging lights,” McManus said. Newton died aged 83 on 30 October.

Costa Georgiadis poses with the Aacta award for the people’s choice-voted favourite TV host
‘This is for Peter’: Costa Georgiadis poses with the Aacta award for the people’s choice-voted favourite TV host. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images for AFI

Accepting the people’s choice award for favourite television host, Costa Georgiadis – with vegetation sprouting from his copious beard – said his predecessor Peter Cundall, who died on Sunday, had sewn the seed of Gardening Australia more than 30 years earlier.

“This is for Peter,” Geogriadis said, punching his Aacta trophy in the air.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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