Rabbit-Proof Fence has at last been voted best film in its country of origin.

The producers - expatriate director Phillip Noyce, writer Christine Olsen and John Winter - earned the top accolade on Saturday at the AFI (Australian Film Institute) Awards, the longest-running local awards event.

Ivan Sen was voted best director for Beneath Clouds, which also earned Alan Collins best cinematography, and was awarded the A$10,000 AFI Harper's BAZAAR Screenwriter's Prize on the previous day. But on the night it was Roger Monk who took home the original screenplay award for Walking On Water, and Phillip Gwyne and Paul Goldman who won the adapted category with Australian Rules.

Walking On Water dominated the acting awards with Maria Theodorakis honoured for her leading performance and Nathaniel Dean and Judi Farr for their supporting roles. David Gulpilil won best actor as The Tracker's title character, topping off his most successful year since being cast in Walkabout over 30 years ago. Gulpilil and Monk are the only names that have appeared as winners in all three sets of awards given out in the last two months.

The AFI Award for best foreign film went to The Fellowship Of The Ring, while Mel Gibson won the global achievement award. Former long-term head of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, Dr Patricia Edgar, was presented with the Raymond Longford Lifetime Achievement Award, and Rachel Perkins accepted the Byron Kennedy Award for her "creative excellence" and "artistic boldness".

Perkins, who directed the films Radiance and One Night The Moon, dedicated her award to her late father, politician Charles Perkins, who continues to provide inspiration and taught her to be proud of being Aboriginal and to strive for excellence. She said it was the first time that four Aboriginal people had won AFI Awards - the others being Gulpilil and Sen.

All four best film nominations had Aboriginal themes, although only Beneath Clouds was driven by Aboriginal people. Doris Pilkington, writer of the book on which Rabbit-Proof Fence was based, used her acceptance speech to call on Australians to help break down racial barriers and to keep pressing the Government to say sorry to the "stolen generation" so that the healing could begin.

The "stolen generation" is the term used for the half-caste Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families over several decades and is the backdrop for the 1930s story about three little girls trying to find their way home while dodging their pursuers. While this may have been motivated by good intentions, the Federal Government's refusal to apologise keeps the issue simmering.