By PETER CALDER
WELLINGTON - Being the youngest winner at the local equivalent of the Oscars didn't faze Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki anywhere near as much as her upcoming School Certificate exams.
The Onslow College fifth-former, who picked up the award for best juvenile performer at the Nokia New Zealand Film Awards in Wellington on Saturday night, took the honour in her stride and said later that she hadn't felt nervous at any stage. Her French and maths exams were "much scarier than this".
Fulford-Wierzbicki, who played a knowing adolescent girl in Christine Jeffs' Rain, was a popular, if reasonably predictable, winner at the swanky awards ceremony at the WestpacTrust St James Theatre.
But the anointing of Snakeskin, the edgy road movie set in the South Island, came as a climactic surprise to the 300 guests, most of whom had been picking Hamish Rothwell's slick poolroom caper Stickmen for the top honour.
In terms of numbers, the night belonged to Snakeskin, which picked up six of the 16 feature film awards including best soundtrack and a clutch of technical honours.
The film's writer-director Gillian Ashurst said she grew up in an environment similar to her character's.
"The sorts of things they do are exactly the sorts of things my friends and I did when we were growing up. We'd go on these crazy journeys, waiting to see if things would happen and sometimes they did."
Stickmen and Rain shared the major acting honours and Stickmen's director, Rothwell, and writer, Nick Ward, took their respective sections. Brandishing his paua shell statuette, Ward dedicated it to "all the people who said I couldn't do it".
Several craft awards - for design, costume design and makeup - were bestowed on a film which has been shown here only privately and which, as yet, has no distribution deal anywhere in the world. Her Majesty, the work of Californian writer-director Mark Gordon, focuses on a young royalty-obsessed girl who aspires to be captain of her marching team so she can meet the monarch on her 1953 tour.
Gordon said the film, which was privately funded largely by firms in Silicon Valley, was a "cross-cultural project which has a New Zealand cast and crew".
The ceremony paused to remember the legacy of John O'Shea, widely admired as the founder of modern New Zealand filmmaking, who died in July, aged 81. Filmmaker Gaylene Preston, who introduced a reel of highlights from O'Shea's career, remembered him as "a stubborn, bloody-minded Irish Pakeha who understood the real importance of Maori filmmaking."
The awards mark a year of extraordinary vigour in the local film industry in terms of box office performance and were widely seen as the most unpredictable for several years.
Two of the winners called on their finalist rivals to stand and take a bow, acknowledging the high standard of competition and saying "any one of us could have won".
But the guests at the function, many of whom were in the capital for the annual conference of the Screen Producers and Directors Association, were also conscious that no local feature film has been in production for most of this year and that, Lord of the Rings notwithstanding, this country will have little to show the world next year.
Meanwhile, out in the foyer, Fulford-Wierzbicki was shrugging off suggestions that this early honour could be the beginning of a stellar career.
"I don't even know if I want to be an actor," she said. "I'll just go with the flow. If something pops out and I think it looks great then I'll do it but ... whatever happens.
"I want to try and learn French. I find it very hard but it's something I started so I just want to finish it."