Of Flying and Filmmaking

Former air force pilot Elan Frank left Israel for the wilds of Alaska and settled in Hollywood, where he has been making documentaries, among other topics, on powerful women - like Sarah Palin.

As a Yas'ur helicopter pilot in the past, with several daring missions and a citation of merit under his belt, Maj. (res. ) Elan Frank knows that missions do not end until "debriefing and implementation" have been carried out. So just before the interview ends, Frank pulls out a small slip of paper with a list on it, written by hand. He checks off each entry - the topics he wanted to discuss: Sarah Palin, the Iranian threat, Fox News, the Israel Air Force pilots course, his medal and so on.

"We've touched upon nearly everything," he concludes with satisfaction.

Have I missed something?

Frank: "Yes, a story that will interest you. I received an invitation to lecture before the Dalai Lama's monks. My condition was that he would be there and I would be able to meet him. They agreed and I am scheduled to go there soon."

Former air force pilot Elan Frank with Sarah Palin

For 11 years now Frank, 54, has been living and working in Los Angeles, where he directs and produces documentary films made in America and abroad. His production company is based in Hollywood and his films have been broadcast on the National Geographic channel, the Discovery Channel and elsewhere. One particularly successful movie, about Republican 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, was sold to the Fox News Channel.

He arrived in Israel for a two-week visit recently with a definite goal: to find funding for the film he is working on about what he calls "Goldstonism" - a term to describe what he calls the distorted way the world perceives Israel.

"People abroad don't have a comprehensive perspective on Israel," he explains. "Here, in Israel itself, everyone knows everything. Abroad they focus on details or on a solitary event - and extrapolate from that concerning the army's behavior. I believe in putting things in perspective. That's what I aim to do."

Is this a film against the Goldstone report?

"No. The report [on Israel's conduct during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009] is the trigger. I'm always explaining Israel and its policies in the United States. When the report was published, it tripped my wire. I know, after all, about the Israel Defense Forces' methods of warfare, the character of the country - the big things. I was disturbed to see the propaganda by Israel's opponents. I wanted to make a film that gives an answer to the Goldstones. One of the main conclusions of it is that the IDF is the most humane army there is. Mistakes are made, certainly. And bad things do happen. But this isn't the main thing. It has to be understood that the army is made up of reservists, and essentially these are people with families, moral people. In any event, I believe that if you fight in immoral ways - you don't win."

Have you contacted security and official elements in Israel - have you informed them about the film?

"The IDF Spokesman has come on board. Many people are involved in it. The film won't focus so much on expressing an opinion, but rather on presenting facts. Now I just need to find someone who will fund it."

Do you believe you will be able to make money from it?

"This isn't a film I'm doing for the money. My country is important to me. I'm connected to what happens here, to the army, to everyone. Look, in addition to the Goldstonism, I am also working with the Fox network on a film about the Iranian threat. People don't understand that Iran is producing atomic weapons for military use, and the film is aimed at showing that Iran isn't developing a bomb for scientific uses, but rather a very dangerous bomb."

Isn't that clear?

"Maybe to us. Not to the Europeans. I am responsible for [showing] the way Israel sees the Iranian threat; I see myself as its representative at Fox."

Maybe you are connected to what is happening here, but you haven't lived here for many years now.

"I haven't been living in Israel for 11 years, but up until a few years ago I did reserve duty at my own initiative twice a year. I was an instructor in a pilots training course. So maybe I don't live here, but I feel totally Israeli."

Why did you leave?

"I wanted to get to a place where the sky is the limit. I wanted to conquer distant places. I knew Hollywood is the highest place one can reach, so that's where I went. I love to create and I want to do a lot in my life. I chose not to join the air force in the career army because life is short. I flew, I chalked up many achievements. I wanted something different."

Daring rescue

Elan Frank was born in Holon, where he grew up in a career-army housing complex. His German-born father had immigrated to Israel at the age of 16 and met his mother, who is of Persian origin, during a visit to Iran. He was inducted into the army in 1975, and in 1982, a short time after finishing the pilots course, was awarded a medal of honor for the daring rescue of an army unit under fire in Lebanon.

On July 19, 1981, the Paratroops Brigade embarked on an operation aimed at hitting terrorists and their infrastructure inside Lebanon. The six Yas'ur (Sikorsky CH-53 ) transport helicopters from Frank's squadron, which took part in the operation, were supposed to take the forces out afterward.

"Early that evening a few Yas'urs from the squadron landed with the paratroops near their targets, and I and two other helicopters were supposed to take them out later," he relates. "But the force got into trouble and called us in urgently. We saw that the territory was active, there was a lot of shooting. We made contact with the force and under the accepted procedure asked them to turn on the lights demarcating a landing point. At that very second, there was heavy fire on our landing place. I had to make a decision quickly - whether to go into a holding pattern or land immediately. I realized there was no alternative but to land, because otherwise they would not get out of there.

"When I landed back in Israel I noticed there was a lot of fuss around me. People gathered around and everyone was saying the same thing: 'The soldiers and the commander of the force didn't believe you would come out alive.' Only then did I grasp the full force of what had happened there."

In 1982 Frank submitted a request to be demobilized so he could study, but then the first Lebanon war erupted. He stayed on, moving up the air force hierarchy, but in 1985, decided to leave: "I took a knapsack, a tent and a sleeping bag and went to Alaska. I wanted someplace wild and far away, where there wouldn't be a lot of Israelis. Thailand and India were out of the question. I traveled around for about six months, I climbed mountains, fished and fell in love."

What is so wonderful there?

"Alaska is a harsh state, but beautiful. For every woman, there are seven men. There are few roads, few highways and a lot of bears. I connected to the people and the landscapes there. At that time I began to formulate the idea of a documentary film about women in Alaska. I discovered something special among many of the women I met there."

Frank decided to remain in the United States, where he completed bachelor's degrees in film, television and acting ("I even appeared in a few films" ). Professionally, the first series he directed drew its inspiration from his military past: "Elite Choppers: Birds of Prey," which was sold to the Discovery Channel, surveyed elite helicopter units in various air forces around the world - Israel, the United States, Germany, Jordan and Taiwan.

Frank: "Discovery was excited about the idea, but the people there didn't know me. So they sent their executive producer to see the presentation I had prepared. And it was successful."

Palin story

In 2006, Frank went back to the idea he had been considering for 20 years, since his time in Alaska, and decided to make a series about women around the world.

"I believe in the power of women and I wanted to develop a project that showed that. I made a film in Nepal about a nun - who is also a famous singer there - who established a school for nuns. In Israel I filmed a Bedouin woman who is helping to advance other Bedouin women, and then I went to Alaska to a place very near the North Pole and spent time at an aviation company of light planes, run by women. I joined them on flights to places where I, as an experienced pilot, wouldn't dare land."

A short time later his "love story" with the woman who was, among other things, a symbol of the State of Alaska began: then-governor Sarah Palin.

"After thorough research I got to Sarah Palin," recalls Frank, "because at the time she was the first woman elected to the position after 60 or 70 years of male rule. Not only that, she had succeeded in getting elected after fighting and defeating corruption. I contacted her and suggested interviewing her for the film. At first she hesitated."

At the time Palin was in Washington, meeting with the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, who was considering options for the vice-presidential slot. Nonetheless, Palin met with Frank, at his office in Los Angeles, and they chatted for two hours.

What did you talk about ?

"We talked about Alaska and I told her about the film. She said: 'Come to Alaska and we'll talk.' A month later I took my camera and went up. I spent three days with her one-on-one. I followed her schedule, everything she was doing. She never asked me to leave or to stop filming even when her aides wanted her to. She let me see how she ran her office. I also filmed her with her family, her husband, the children. Very intimate moments. She was open, friendly and genuine. She impressed me very much. She has 'star quality.' It doesn't matter what you think about her, she has an attractive image."

In the media she didn't come across as a very intelligent woman.

"Look, the air force gave me tools to analyze and diagnose. My impression of her was that she is a very 'cool,' pleasant woman, who knows how to ask the right questions."

Frank completed the shooting and began to edit the material, when Palin was selected as McCain's running mate. "Through my agent we let it be known I had footage about her in hand - and then the rush began," he recounts. "All the television networks in the United States, and I'm not exaggerating, wanted to see the material. In the end I decide to go with the Fox network."


"Because Palin had been with me 100 percent - I didn't want anyone to use my material against her, and I trusted the Fox network. From the footage I had, they made a film that got the highest viewer ratings in Fox's history."

So thanks to Palin you've become involved with Fox News?

"Yes, that's how my romance with the Fox network began, especially as I had become the No. 1 expert in the United States on Sarah Palin. They signed me up as a consultant - and Palin too."

Are you in touch with her?

"Not closely, but I am working to bring her to Israel."

What happened in the end with the series about women in the world?

"I made contact with Oprah Winfrey, for whom I had intended the films from the outset. At the moment she is more interested in focusing on one story, so I have chosen the pilots from Alaska."

Does one earn a good living from documentary films?

"One can earn a living from it."

No arrogance

When Frank is asked what tips he would give an Israeli filmmaker who is dreaming of Hollywood, he fires off his philosophy: "I would advise him to arm himself with a lot of determination and the ability to stick to a goal. He has to be focused and to give up certain things. If you persist, there is a chance you will succeed. It's equally important to study Americans and their way of thinking - and not to come with an arrogant Israeli attitude."

What is your opinion of the reality TV industry? Is there room for documentaries alongside it?

"The thing is, the reality series have stopped being reality. They are making fabricated drama there. They are creating new realities and I don't like them. However, I don't have anything against genuine reality. I myself am making a series about a family of jazz wizards, which I will offer the new television network Oprah Winfrey is establishing. Producer Quincy Jones is involved in this effort.

At age 44, Frank married Limor, a kibbutznik and graphic designer; they have three young children.

"My passion today lies in three places: flying, creating films and, above all, my family - as a husband and father," says Frank. "After I escaped with my life a few times in the past, I value the moment a million times more."

Is there a chance you will come back to live in Israel?

"I talk about this with my wife every day. I admit I don't know how to transfer my 'center of gravity' from there to here. But it doesn't really matter: There, too, I feel like a soldier in the service of my country."