David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu is projected onto the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday.(Image: Don Arnold/Getty Images for AFI)

Projections of David Gulpilil adorned the eastern Bennelong sails of the Sydney Opera House last night as the AACTA Awards paid tribute to the late Yolngu actor.

Gulpilil’s pioneering career was honoured inside the iconic venue as well via the Longford Lyell Award, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the Australian screen industry, and the AACTAs for Best Documentary and Best Editing in a Documentary for My Name is Gulpilil, produced by Vertigo Productions.

Justin Kurzel’s Nitram dominated the feature film categories at the ceremony, winning eight awards, including Best Director and Best Film as well acting prizes for Caleb Landry Jones, Anthony LaPaglia, Judy Davis, and Essie Davis.

There was also no shortage of recognition for the ABC’s The Newsreader, which led the pack for television with five AACTAs, including Best Drama Series, Best Direction, and Best Lead Actress in a Drama for Anna Torv and Best Supporting Actor for William McInnes.

The night, however, belonged to Gulpilil, who died last week aged 68.

Jack Thompson accepts the AACTA Award for Best Documentary during the 2021 AACTA Awards (Image: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images for AFI)

Actor, writer, and producer Leah Purcell joined Jack Thompson, Baz Luhrmann, Leah Purcell, Hugh Jackman, Bryan Brown, Phillip Noyce in speaking about his influence, describing him as a “Songman of the highest order and a man of deep culture”.

“As a little Aboriginal girl growing up in the Queensland bush, I remember seeing Uncle David in Storm Boy and being mesmerised by his movement, gestures and how he could tell a story through his eyes,” she said.

“Then as a teenager with dreams of acting myself I got to see those same traits in Crocodile Dundee. Fast forward 20 years and I got to work with him in The Proposition and saw it all up close and personal, he was incredible.”

This year’s AACTA ceremony was a tentative return to normalcy, following last year’s COVID reimagining, where the craft and technical awards were presented online ahead of an in-person ceremony that was split across two sittings.

Having appeared via video link in 2020, AACTA president Russell Crowe was back in attendance and commenced proceedings with a speech that paid homage to Thompson, with whom he starred in The Sum of Us, while also encouraging political expression from the arts.

“This is the Academy of Cinema and Television Arts,” he said.

“That last word arts, in my mind, is your license to be as political as you want to be.

“To be as active in your community as you need to be, as loud on behalf of those who don’t yet have a voice as you have to be.”

Justin Kurzel accepts the AACTA Award for Best Direction in Film during the 2021 AACTA Awards (Image: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for AFI)

Few films made as much noise this year as Kurzel’s Nitram, which offers a pre-Port Arthur massacre portrait of perpetrator Martin Bryant – who is not named in the film.

In accepting the award for Best Film, producer Nick Batzias acknowledged the “sensitive material” of the project that was “for some, really confronting”.

“We always tried to approach it with restraint,” he said.

“That said, we always accept and appreciate that it’s not a film for everybody and that’s so OK.

“We’re also incredibly grateful we live in a place where art is able to rub up against difficult subject matter, ask questions and start conversations, so we can unpick the world we live in and maybe work out a better way of moving forward.”

Tony Ayres, Belinda Chayko, Andrea Denholm and Hunter Page-Lochard accept the AACTA Award for Best Miniseries or Telefeature. (Image: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for AFI)

There was also a strong message behind the Best Miniseries or Telefeature winner, with ABC drama Fires receiving the award.

The six-part anthology series details the experiences of everyday people at the frontline of the 2019-2020 bushfires.

It was one of 22 AACTA wins for the ABC, with the broadcaster having also claimed Best Factual Entertainment Program for Northern Pictures’ Love on the Spectrum, Best Narrative Comedy Series for Fisk, Best Children’s Program for Bluey, and Best Documentary or Factual Program for Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds.

The 2021 AACTA Winners are as follows:

Television

• AACTA Award for Best Comedy Entertainment Program: Hard Quiz – Kevin Whyte, Chris Walker, Tom Gleeson, John Tabbagh – Thinkative Television & ABC (ABC)
• AACTA Award for Best Comedy Performer: Kitty Flanagan – Fisk
• AACTA Award Best Drama Series: The Newsreader – Joanna Werner, Michael Lucas – Werner Film Productions (ABC)
• AACTA Award for Best Entertainment Program: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 2021 – Paul Clarke, Stephanie Werrett, Josh Martin – Blink TV (SBS)
• AACTA Award for Best Factual Entertainment Program: Love on the Spectrum – Jenni Wilks, Karina Holden, Cian O’Clery – Northern Pictures (ABC)
• AACTA Award for Best Lead Actor in a Drama: Scott Ryan – Mr Inbetween
• AACTA Award for Best Lead Actress in a Drama: Anna Torv – The Newsreader
• AACTA Award for Best Lifestyle Program: Grand Designs Australia – Michael O’Neill, Brooke Bayvel – Fremantle (Foxtel)
• AACTA Award for Best Miniseries or Telefeature: Fires – Tony Ayres, Andrea Denholm, Liz Watts, Belinda Chayko, Elisa Argenzio – Tony Ayres Production (ABC)
• AACTA Award for Best Reality Program: MasterChef Australia – Marty Benson, Adam Fergusson, Eoin Maher – Endemol Shine Australia (Network Ten)
• AACTA Award for Best Screenplay in Television: Mr Inbetween (Episode 6: Ray Who?) – Scott Ryan
• AACTA Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama: William McInnes – The Newsreader
• AACTA Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama: Rachel Griffiths – Total Control

Film

• AACTA Award for Best Direction in Film: Nitram – Justin Kurzel
• AACTA Award for Best Film: Nitram – Nick Batzias, Virginia Whitwell, Justin Kurzel, Shaun Grant – GoodThing Productions
• AACTA Award for Best Lead Actor in Film: Caleb Landry Jones – Nitram
• AACTA Award for Best Lead Actress in Film: Judy Davis – Nitram
• AACTA Award for Best Original Screenplay in Film: Nitram – Shaun Grant
• AACTA Award for Best Supporting Actor in Film: Anthony LaPaglia – Nitram
• AACTA Award for Best Supporting Actress in Film: Essie Davis – Nitram

Audience Choice Awards

• Favourite Actor: Eric Bana
• Favourite Competition Reality Show: LEGO® Masters Australia
• Favourite Digital Comedy Creator: Sooshi Mango
• Favourite Entertainment Show: Gardening Australia
• Favourite Film: The Dry
• Favourite Television Drama: Wentworth
• Favourite Televission Host: Costa Georgiadis – Gardening Australia – ABC

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