IT WAS a triumphant night for the Cummeragunja Songbirds.
The comic musical The Sapphires, about an Aboriginal girl group who rise from an outback mission to Vietnam War entertainers, has swept the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards.
Wayne Blair's feelgood hit won best film, best direction and four more awards in Sydney, adding to the five trophies at the event for craft awards on Monday.
With Russell Crowe hosting and fellow Oscar winners Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman and Geoffrey Rush in the audience, Deborah Mailman won the best lead actress award and Jessica Mauboy the best supporting actress award for playing two of the Songbirds, who become the sassy, soul-singing Sapphires when they headed to Vietnam. "I'm so deeply proud of what this film has achieved and am so bloody thrilled I was a part of it," said Mailman. She also praised the four "aunties" who were the real life Sapphires. ''You set a precedent for the rest of us to follow.''
Mauboy was emotional in her acceptance speech. "God bless all you mob," she said. "I feel I really don't deserve this - I mean it."
Ireland's Chris O'Dowd, who played their boozy manager, was judged best lead actor. In a speech delivered by Mailman, O'Dowd apologised for not being at the awards "but it seems you get naked on one flight and it seems you're no longer welcome on Qantas". He thanked Australia for the tradition of "unconditional hospitality to Irish vagabonds".
Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs collected the award for best adapted screenplay.
Briggs initially turned his mother's story as one of the real-life Sapphires into a stage musical. He worked for five years with Blair, who played their manager in the original production, to develop a film that became the country's biggest hit last year.
When accepting his award for best director, Blair thanked thanked Briggs for "just a simple promise between two mates to say 'would you like to direct this film?'"
Blair also acted in and co-directed the ABC TV series Redfern Now, which won two awards on a night of celebrations for indigenous talent – Leah Purcell for best actress in a TV drama and Steven McGregor for best TV screenplay.
The Sapphires is the fourth Aboriginal story to win the best film award in the past 11 years at the AACTA and preceding Australian Film Institute awards, following Samson & Delilah, Ten Canoes and Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Backstage, Blair was thrilled to be part of a tide of indigenous success in film and television.
"To be a part of this wave that's happening now that started 30, 40 years ago, it's beautiful," he said.
"I just cannot wait to start back on Redfern Now again and to introduce this film to America on March 22. So fingers crossed."
Flanked by Mauboy and fellow Sapphire Shari Sebbens, Mailman said the turning point was Aborigines getting to tell their own stories.
"When you've got that creative control then you can really push boundaries. You don't have to walk on eggshells.
"You can actually come from a personal point of view, from an insightful point of view, you can push it emotionally, you can actually really tackle the issues at a gut level."
The drama Wish You Were Here, about a disastrous trip by Australian tourists to Cambodia, won the best supporting actor award for Antony Starr and best original screenplay for director Kieran Darcy-Smith and his actress wife Felicity Price.
In the TV categories, the Ten Network's Puberty Blues was named best drama series, with Nine's Howzat! Kerry Packer's War the best mini-series or telefeature. Richard Roxburgh was judged best lead actor in a TV series for playing the roguish Cleaver Greene in Rake.
Clem McInnes accepted the Byron Kennedy Award for creative enterprise on behalf of his late mother Sarah Watt, the director of Look Both Ways, Small Treasures and My Year Without Sex and wife of actor-writer William McInnes.
The story Sapphire-studded cast gives Songbirds something to sing about first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.