Lives in gritty times provide apt theme for independent British film awards

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The Independent Culture

The grim saga of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and a feel-good rags to riches tale about a fictitious Indian slum kid swept the British Independent Film Awards last night.

The two very different films, the artist Steve McQueen's directorial debut Hunger and Danny Boyle's acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire, took three prizes each on a night which hailed a number of emerging talents.

"Tonight's nominations and award winners prove that filmmaking in Britain is alive and well," said Elliot Grove, who founded the Bifas in 1998.

Speaking after the ceremony in Old Billingsgate Market, central London, the Bifa co-directors, Johanna von Fischer and Tessa Collinson, said: "The diverse range of films nominated showcases an astounding line-up of talent both new and established that demands to be celebrated."

Boyle who, with a long curriculum vitae featuring Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, falls into the category of established talent, picked up the award for best director for Slumdog Millionaire. His film also won the award for best British independent film and its young lead, Dev Patel, won the most promising newcomer category.

Patel, who appeared in Channel 4's Skins, stars as Jamal, a teenager from the fetid, violent slums of Mumbai who is arrested on suspicion of cheating when he is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on a television gameshow. Told in a series of flashbacks, the film charts the misadventures by which he picked up the knowledge to get through the quiz.

Hunger is a gritty portrayal of the last days of 27-year-old Bobby Sands, who died in Belfast's Maze prison in May 1981 after refusing to eat for 66 days. He was the first of 10 Republicans to die on hunger strikes prompted by the withdrawal of their Special Category Status, which meant they were no longer recognised as political prisoners. The film has already won the Camera d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

McQueen, 38, already established as a Turner prize-winning video artist, was awarded the Douglas Hickox prize for best debut director. The cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, won the best technical achievement award. The German-born Michael Fassbender, 31, who played Sands, won best actor having starved himself for 10 weeks in preparation for his performance. The best actor prize had been won in 2002 by the host of last night's ceremony, James Nesbitt, for his portrayal of the MP Ivan Cooper in Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday.

Simon Ellis's 14-minute feature Soft, about bullying and happy-slapping, won best British short film and Man on Wire, James Marsh's story of the tightrope walker Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire routine between the towers of the World Trade Centre, won best documentary.

John Woodward, chief executive of the UK Film Council, saids: "Over the years these awards have developed a great knack for discovering exciting new talent and promoting them to a wider film world, consequently championing British independent film excellence and originality."

Among the criteria for nomination for the Bifas, for films substantially funded by a major studio, the total budget must not exceed £10m. They must be produced by a British company or receive at least 51 per cent of their budget from British sources.

The Biftas: And the winners are ...

*Best British independent film: Slumdog Millionaire

*Best director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

*Douglas Hickox prize for best debut director: Steve McQueen, Hunger

*Best actor: Michael Fassbender, Hunger

*Best actress: Vera Farmiga, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

*Most promising newcomer: Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

*Best foreign film: Waltz With Bashir

*Richard Harris award for outstanding contribution to British film: David Thewlis

*Best screenplay: Martin McDonagh, In Bruges