In the traditional Blood Pact, boiling blood is served as punch; in the relationship between the Filipino native and the parish priest, the native is shown as an ungrateful child while the priest is boorish, abusive, greedy and ungrateful. Welcome to the rarely-seen Tadhana (Destiny) by Nonoy Marcello, probably the funniest and least stuffy lesson on Philippine history. Noel Vera reviews.


Nonoy Marcelo.

Filipino cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo’s Tadhana (Destiny) is possibly the first-ever, full-length animated feature made in the Philippines. Based on a series of volumes on Philippine history officially written by Ferdinand Marcos (unofficially written by a whole team of historians), and produced by his eldest daughter, Imee, the film was broadcast on September 21, 1978 - the sixth anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law.

It was supposed to be replayed and even have a theatrical release, but for reasons never made clear that broadcast was it; it was never seen again. Today, no known print or negative is left, only a video copy recorded off that broadcast by Mr. Teddy Co, who lent his copy to Mowelfund for their French-Filipino Animation Festival.

Sixty artists worked for three months on the project - not many and not long compared to what goes into a standard Disney feature animation (hundreds of artists working for years), but almost unheard of in the Philippines, where animation is a cottage industry - literally a one-man, part-time job. The animation is crude, though compared to what’s been done previously and even recently - Geirry Garrcia’s Adarna comes to mind - the film stands up surprisingly well. Garrcia’s film may have smoother motion (just barely) but Tadhana has a distinct, even unique, sensibility (Adarna’s is of the simpering Disney kind).

Marcelo conceived of the film as a series of vignettes, often experimental, sometimes surreal. It has to be - a consistently realist style would have been too expensive. Marcelo turns this idiosyncrasy into an advantage: this is probably the funniest, least stuffy lesson on Philippine history ever given. When Magellan’s galleons sail across the Pacific they sway right and left like fat-bellied matrons (to the tune of the Star Wars theme); when Lapu-Lapu lops off Magellan’s head it drops to the sands and sings (in Yoyoy Villame’s voice): "Mother, mother I am sick; call da doctor very quick." Marcelo’s film is less an account of history than it is a gleefully, unashamedly jaundiced interpretation of it - 60 minutes of editorial cartoons, improvising brilliantly.


Imee insists that while it’s not a literally faithful adaptation of her father’s books, it’s faithful to their themes. I’ve dipped into the books enough to remember that Marcos recognizes (or rather, his historians recognize) the centuries of repression inflicted by the Catholic Church and Spain. But if Tadhana takes its cue from the books in targeting church and state, its humor is uniquely Marcelo’s. His near-Swiftian wit turns microcosmos into macrocosmos (as in his comic strip Ikabod, where a mouse and friends represent Philippine society), and compels him to bite the hand that feeds him (Marcos, as skewered in Ikabod, Tisoy, and others).

One highlight is the Blood Pact, traditionally depicted by Filipino artists as a solemn, historically momentous moment. In Tadhana the pact is signed during the opening cocktails of the Sandugo (One Blood) Art Exhibit; boiling blood is served as punch while a manananggal (a woman’s severed upper half, flapping about on a pair of batwings) and a tikbalang (a half-man, half-horse - drawn, I think, by cartoonist Edd Aragon) gets down to some funky disco music.

Rajah Soliman, riding a water buffalo that roars like a Harley Davidson, crashes the party and demands to know why he wasn’t invited; when he peers at the exhibited paintings - examples of Western abstract and post-modern art - his brain reels and undergoes a hallucinogenic head trip.

Probably the best part of the film - my favorite, anyway - is the relationship sketched between parish priest and native, animated to the tune of Freddie Aguilar’s mournful "Anak" (Child). The choice is hilariously ironic; Aguilar sings of an ungrateful child and his sacrificing parents while onscreen it’s the priest - the native child’s spiritual and biological father - who is boorish, abusive, greedy and ungrateful.

The child confronts his mother, a veiled babaylan (sorceress) and the priest’s mistress; she has wept so much from grief that she has to wring her veil dry. Cut to a close-up of the child’s face - now that of a young man - as tears stream down his own cheeks. Aguilar’s melody wails on, but suddenly satire is transmuted into something potent and unsaid, something not so very different from genuine tragedy.

The final 20 minutes chronicles an epic war between native and conquistador, an over-ambitious, over-extended sequence stuffed to the brim with all kinds of animation techniques, to the tune of Procol Harum’s violent "Conquistador." Panoramic drawings of native warriors and Spanish soldiers poised to attack; godlike overhead shots of armies surging like tides; images scratched into the film print itself, depicting elemental chaos...

Marcelo tempers his anti-Western stance with a remarkably clear-eyed view of the pre-Hispanic Filipino; he knows not all blame can be laid at the feet of foreign devils. The datu (chieftain) is an incoherent drunk who considers everything useless and shares his counsel with a jar of rice liquor; his manservant is a craven backbiter constantly aware of the fact that if the datu dies, he will be buried with him. Both are hardly the heroic warriors of Filipino history books; rather, they’re the same funny characters that spill out the margins of Marcelo’s newspaper strips: as flawed, vainglorious, deluded - as recognizably human, in short - as you or me.

As mentioned before, Tadhana was broadcast once, then apparently never shown again. Why? Did the Church, on seeing the anti-clerical bias, move to have all prints and video copies destroyed? Did Marcos, watching as the natives cried "Makialam!" (roughly, "Join us!") against their oppressors, feel uncomfortable enough to want to suppress it? We may never know...

Another intriguing question: if the series had continued, how would Marcelo have handled recent history - particularly the Marcos years, up to his declaration of martial law? Would he have tried smuggling anti-Marcos criticism under the censors’ noses, as in his later cartoons? Again we may never know, and perhaps Marcelo himself intended it that way, stopping far enough in the past while it’s still safe.

Anyway, what we have, here and now, is a video copy of the remote past, brought to glorious, comic life by one of our greatest satirist. Is the film still relevant? More than ever, what with parish priests still molesting parishioners, wealthy patriarchs still abusing laborers, and the all-mighty West still oppressing us all ("War on Terrorism" anyone?). The film ends with the glowing circular logo of Marcos’s Bagong Lipunan (New Society) - symbol of Marcelo’s patron without whom the film would never have been made, the same time it’s a symbol of the 20-year dictatorship he would end up fighting through his comics. The irony, I hope, isn’t lost on us.

Note: Menzone, April 2003. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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October 30, 2007

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