Lion roars at AACTAs with clean sweep and youngest best actor

After weeks of troubling revelations about sexual harassment, abuse and assault in the film and television industries, it was the feel-good story that everyone desperately needed.

As Lion swept the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in Sydney, claiming 12 awards from 12 nominations, the surprise winner of best actor was tiny Sunny Pawar who played a lost boy in director Garth Davis' inspiring drama.

An award won by Andrew Garfield, Michael Caton, Leonardo DiCaprio and David Gulpilil in recent years went to a charismatic nine-year-old whose family lived in a slum near Mumbai airport when he was cast aged just six.

He was one of more than 2000 children auditioning to play young Saroo Brierley, who embarked on a long emotional search to find his birth mother after growing up in Australia in the film.

Pawar became the youngest winner of best actor - beating Simon Burke who was 15 when he won an Australian Film Institute Award for The Devil's Playground in 1976.

"Thank you so much for the honour," he said in a sweet video message from the set of a new film he is shooting in Calcutta. "I am so happy. I wish you all happy new year and merry Christmas."

Lion dominated the awards at The Star on Wednesday night - winning best film, best direction and both best supporting actor awards for Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel after seven craft prizes at the Industry Luncheon on Monday.

The ceremony came four days after Geoffrey Rush stood down as Academy president following an allegation that he denied of "inappropriate conduct" while working at Sydney Theatre Company - one of a wave of accusations against well-known identities since Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was revealed as a sexual predator in October.

A film championed by Weinstein to six Oscar nominations this year, Lion recorded the most dominant result at the AACTAs since The Great Gatsby won 13 accolades four years ago.

Accepting best film, producer Angie Fielder drew rousing applause when she supported the victims of sexual harassment who have come forward with their stories.

"As a film that was partly financed by the Weinstein Company, it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the incredible bravery of the women and men who have come forward to break the silence about sexual harassment and assault in our industry," she said. "Hopefully this marks a time of change."

In a category without a Lion nominee, Emma Booth won best actress for her haunting performance in the intense serial killer drama Hounds of Love.

It was a role she refused twice when director Ben Young offered it to her.

"He came back the third time and I thought 'look, I'm terrified to take on [the character of] Evelyn. I don't know if I can do her justice'," she said. "Anyway, I did it and I'm really, really, really happy I did."

Kidman nabbed a double by also winning best guest or supporting actress in a TV drama for Top of the Lake: China Girl.

"To be acknowledged now at 50 years old - I started in the industry at 14 - [is] just extraordinary," she said in a video from Los Angeles.

Jane Campion's series for Foxtel-BBC First won three other awards: best TV drama series, best lead actress in a TV drama for Elisabeth Moss and best guest or supporting actor for Ewen Leslie.

It was an exceptional awards for Oscar-winning producer Emile Sherman with Lion and Top of the Lake totalling 16 wins from 23 nominations.

While Hugo Weaving missed a hat trick of wins for best supporting actor in a feature film, he collected best lead actor in a TV drama for Seven Types of Ambiguity.

The ABC series won four other industry awards but missed out on best telefeature or mini-series to SBS's Sunshine, a crime drama set amongst the South Sudanese community in Melbourne's western suburbs.

Celia Pacquola managed her own hat-trick when she won best performance in a TV comedy for the ABC's Rosehaven.

Russell Crowe presented a new award for best Asian film to India's Dangal, a drama about a father who trains his daughters to be world class wrestlers.

MasterChef Australia (Ten) won best reality series for the third consecutive year, with new hit Australian Ninja Warrior (Nine) winning best light entertainment series and Selling Houses Australia (Foxtel's Lifestyle) claiming best lifestyle TV series.

The country's top screen accolade, the Longford Lyell award for career achievement, went to director Phil Noyce with video tributes from Harrison Ford, Michael Caine and Jeff Bridges.

The winner of the trailblazer award, for an inspiring career, went to Simon Baker whose debut film as a director, Breath, will be out next year.

The Byron Kennedy award for outstanding creative contribution went to Tanna directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean.

Even with all of Lion's awards, Sunny Pawar's win was the one that most delighted its director.

"I was just praying that he would win," Davis said. "I could just feel it when I met him that he had something special. There was an instinctual connection with that boy."

Davis described Pawar as a freak of nature.

"That was one of the great things I discovered on the shoot - a few weeks in, he started to empathise with Saroo's story and became an actor," he said. "He wasn't just a kid getting responses or emotions. He was actually embracing this character and empathising with him and bringing that to the floor."

AND THE WINNERS ARE ...

Best Film

Lion

Best Direction

Garth Davis for Lion

Best Lead Actress

Emma Booth for Hounds of Love

Best Lead Actor

Sunny Pawar for Lion

Best Supporting Actress

Nicole Kidman for Lion

Best Supporting Actor

Dev Patel for Lion

Best TV Drama Series

Top of the Lake: China Girl (Foxtel/BBC First)

Best Telefeature Or Mini-Series

Sunshine (SBS)

Best Light Entertainment TelevIsion Series

Australian Ninja Warrior (Nine)

Best Reality Television Series

MasterChef Australia (Ten)

Best Lifestyle Television ProgrAm

Selling Houses Australia (foxtel/lifestyle)

Longford Lyell Award

Phillip Noyce

Trailblazer Award

Simon Baker

Byron Kennedy Award

Martin Butler and Bentley Dean

This story Lion roars at AACTAs with clean sweep and youngest best actor first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.