Nitram and The Newsreader dominate the AACTA Awards, as actor David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu honoured

December 8 2021

ABC's The Newsreader and Justin Kurzel's film Nitram have dominated this year's AACTA Awards, held Wednesday night at Sydney Opera House.

Nitram, a controversial dramatisation of the Port Arthur Massacre and its perpetrator Martin Bryant, took home the most awards of the night: eight, including Best Film and Best Direction, and awards for lead actors Caleb Landry Jones and Judy Davis, and supporting actors Essie Davis and Anthony LaPaglia.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images of a person who has died.

The late actor's family has granted permission to use his image and surname.

Accepting the award, producer Nick Batzias said "We've known from the outset that it's sensitive material and for some really confronting. … [But] we're also incredibly grateful we live in a place where art is able to rub up against difficult subject matter, and ask questions, and start conversations."

The Newsreader, a six-part drama series set in a television newsroom in 1986, led the TV pack with five AACTAs (out of 16 nominations), including Best Drama Series and actor awards for Anna Torv and William McInnes.

Perhaps the biggest accolades, however, were reserved for the late Yolngu actor David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, who was awarded the Longford Lyell Award for his outstanding contribution to the Australian screen industry — over five decades, and films including Storm Boy, Crocodile Dundee, Ten Canoes and Charlie's Country.

The award, presented by Jack Thompson and Rachel Perkins, came just over a week after his death — and 50 years since he made his screen debut in Walkabout.

The sails of Sydney Opera House were lit up with images of the actor, and friends and colleagues including Leah Purcell (The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson) and Hugh Jackman paid tribute via video messages.

Purcell said: "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."

The Academy also paid tribute to industry titan Bert Newton, who died in October, with Rove McManus describing him as "the last of the true old school all-rounders".

AACTA winners:

Best film: Nitram
Best director: Justin Kurzel (Nitram)
Best leading actress: Judy Davis (Nitram)
Best leading actor: Caleb Landry Jones (Nitram)
Best supporting actress: Essie Davis (Nitram)
Best supporting actor: Anthony LaPaglia (Nitram)
Best original screenplay: Shaun Grant (Nitram)
Best cinematography: Stefan Duscio (The Dry)
Best editing: Nick Fenton (Nitram)
Best costume design: Erin Roche (High Ground)
Best indie film: Ellie and Abbie (& Ellie's Dead Aunt)
Best documentary: My Name is Gulpilil
A full list of nominees and winners across all categories is available via the AACTA.
A call for funding
Russell Crowe, President of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA), kicked off this year's awards ceremony with rousing words.

"I'm supposed to tell the winners to be as time efficient and as apolitical as they can be in their acceptance speeches. But this is the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. That last word, 'arts', to my mind, is your licence to be as political as you want to be.

"As artists, you have the licence to overthrow empires, to hold the mirrors to hypocrisy, to shine lights into dark corners and bring humanity into political discourse in a way that other professions simply can't. Respect that. Use your voice."

Crowe told the crowd: "I started acting at the age of six. And still today after every gig wraps, the same thought goes through my mind: Will I ever work again."(Supplied: Getty)
Despite this, it was a distinctly sedate ceremony — though Baz Luhrmann, co-presenting the final award of the evening with Taika Waititi, used his stage time to stump for government funding for the arts.

"Many years ago, our forefathers, our foremothers in a land far far away, said, 'You know, it's really important to put government money in and to have a film school, to have an acting school' — to even get this building [Sydney Opera House] built. They put that money in, and if they hadn't done that — if the government hadn't supported us — none of us would be here today.

"Because as a small country, we hit so far above our weight, it's almost inconceivable. And that's because we've had government support in the arts. And I look at all these young faces here, and I think about how many opportunities we were given when we were young, and how that vision — that on the edge of the world, that the arts matter, and that giving young people opportunity matters — has made us who we are today. So let's not stop doing it. Let's double down on that."

White man with combed white hair and black suit next to brown man with grey hair and black suit present award on stage.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann and New Zealand actor and filmmaker Taika Waititi co-presented the Best Film award.(Supplied: Getty)
ABC shows sweep up
ABC was a big winner at this year's AACTAs, with major awards including Best Narrative Comedy Series for Fisk, Best Miniseries or Telefeature for Fires, Best Documentary for My Name is Gulpilil and Best Children's Program for Bluey.

AACTA winners:

Best drama series: The Newsreader (Werner Film Productions / ABC)
Best miniseries or telefeature: Fires (Tony Ayres Production / ABC)
Best children's program: Bluey (Ludo Studio / ABC)
Best lead actress in a television drama: Anna Torv (The Newsreader)
Best lead actor in a television drama: Scott Ryan (Mr Inbetween)
Best supporting actress in a television drama: Rachel Griffiths (Total Control)
Best supporting actor in a television drama: William McInnes (The Newsreader)
Best comedy performer: Kitty Flanagan (Fisk)
Best narrative comedy series: Fisk (Porchlight Films / ABC)
Best comedy entertainment program: Hard Quiz (Thinkative Television / ABC)
Best entertainment program: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (Blink TV / SBS)
Best factual entertainment program: Love on the Spectrum (Northern Pictures / ABC)
Best documentary or factual program: Old People's Home For 4 Year Olds (Endemol Shine / ABC)
Best lifestyle program: Grand Designs Australia (Fremantle / Foxtel)
Best reality program: MasterChef Australia (Endemol Shine / Network Ten)
A full list of nominees and winners across all categories is available via the AACTA.

It comes off the back of a report by Deloitte Access Economics released Wednesday morning that quantified the value of ABC-commissioned screen productions to Australia's economy at $744 million and 8,300 full-time-equivalent roles from 2017-2020.

Screen Australia's Drama Report for 2020/21, released Tuesday, also affirms the ABC's critical role in supporting Australian drama production: the broadcaster's investment of $43 million (up 22 per cent on 2019/20) across 17 titles represents the largest financial contribution of any single platform.

Beyond drama, the ABC's contribution was bolstered by awards for factual and entertainment series Old People's Home For 4 Year Olds (winning its category for the second time, having won in 2019 for the first series) and Love on the Spectrum.

While the former is a local offshoot of a British TV series, the latter is an increasingly rare beast in Australian TV: an Australian original format.

Even rarer, it has made the leap overseas, after Netflix picked up global streaming rights for the series.

Speaking to ABC backstage, Love on the Spectrum co-creators Karina Holden and Cian O'Clery emphasised the importance of the national broadcasters taking risks on original formats — a point well made in a year where TV factual and entertainment nominations were dominated by overseas imports, including MasterChef, Gogglebox, The Voice, The Masked Singer and Grand Designs.

Staged shot of seven cast members of Love on the Spectrum, dressed in glamorous formal attire in an art deco styled room.

"There's been a lot of international formats that have been imported here and made by Australian production companies," said O'Clery.

"But we have two public broadcasters in Australia [and] we should be taking these risks and commissioning original content."

O'Clery said Love on the Spectrum would not have been made anywhere else.

"ABC trusted us and believed in the idea … Nobody else would have commissioned this show."

Holden said: "Having a show like this working on a public broadcaster has allowed it to become a bigger thing that people all around the world are talking about now.

"It's great for our industry to have that kind of recognition and success … let alone what it means for Australian businesses to be making their own content and growing their own intellectual property."

Mini-series go big and streamers make waves
The success of The Newsreader, Fires and New Gold Mountain (SBS) underscores a broader trend: the rise and rise of the mini-series.

Production of limited series is up 38 per cent from 2019/20, according to Screen Australia's Drama Report — while regular series production is down 10 per cent.

Tony Ayres, behind AACTA Award-winning mini-series Clickbait (Netflix), Fires (ABC) and last year's winner Stateless (ABC), spoke backstage at this year's awards about the need for balance in the industry: "We have a very delicate ecosystem here."

"We need to keep producing long-running shows, to give talent an opportunity [to develop] — we can't all always just be making boutique, high-end shows, because it just doesn't give people the chance to break into the industry," Ayres said.

"You know, we punch above our weight [as a country] because we have this incredible talent pool in Australia. And so we need to keep nurturing and supporting that, because otherwise, there isn't a future."

Ayres had a busy 18 months, producing both the eight-episode thriller Clickbait and six-episode drama Fires through COVID restrictions and lockdowns.

The two couldn't be further apart in terms of tone, style and subject matter — one an America-set murder mystery designed for binge viewing, the other a realism-based drama dealing with the trauma of Australia's 2019-2020 bushfires.

For Ayres, being able to pitch different kinds of material to different platforms is ideal.

"As a creator, you're trying to design your shows specifically for particular broadcasters; the kind of thing that I would take to Netflix would be completely different from what I would take to the ABC — so I think they're complementary," he says.

But he said the experience of tapping into a global audience with Clickbait has been unique and thrilling, as the show rocketed to the top of Netflix's US charts within its first week on the platform, before moving into the global leader position.

"The impact was extraordinary," he says.

"It was a strange moment [during lockdown] where we had a global number-one show. I mean, even that idea didn't exist five years ago."

FIlmmaker Justin Kurzel, meanwhile, said that Nitram would not have been made without Australian streamer Stan, who also produced his 2019 film True History of the Kelly Gang.

"[Nitram] was a very hard film to get up, and it really took them trusting us," he said backstage at the awards.

The benefit of their backing was more than finance and distribution: it was creative freedom.

"There's no interference, and there's absolute trust in the filmmakers."