Unreliable and tense: review of true crime documentary Abducted in Plain Sight by Skye Borgman

Abducted in Plain Sight

Dir/prod: Skye Borgman

Prod: Stephanie Tobey

Prod: Emily Kincaid


This story is unbelievable! 

In the early 1970s, Jan Broberg was abducted by a family friend. Twice.

The makers of Abducted in Plain Sight tell us that, Robert Berchtold was an energetic father of five, a loving husband, a pillar of the community.  He became best friends with Mary Ann and Bob Broberg and their families quickly became inseparable.

Even though I knew roughly what the story was about, throughout the first third of the film I had a steadily building sense of foreboding. When the nub of the story was revealed I don't think it could have been worse. Director Skye Borgman made the inspired decision to focus squarely on the Broberg family for the first act. As the family members talk to the camera I am drawn into their world. They don't directly address the abduction of Jan. They talk around what happened to her without directly naming it. They build a detailed and layered picture of a family that is loving and 'normal' yet that is susceptible to tragedy.

After the big reveal, my sense of foreboding is replaced with disbelief. How can this family keep making decisions that place their daughter in danger? Why do they let Robert Berchtold back into their lives?

Indie true crime documentary Abducted in Plain Sight. Jan and Berchtold and Mary Ann Broberg Christmas 1973-min.png

In Australia, we seem to have had wave after wave of investigation into the abuse of vulnerable children. Is it the same in other parts of the world? With every Royal Commission and special investigation, there are more and more stories of children betrayed by those closest to them, whether it be in a religious or educational institution or at home. We know how to protect children and we know the danger signs to look out for. Abducted in Plain Sight doesn't address the religious aspect of this story by the way. It doesn't attempt to unpack the particular vulnerabilities of children in religious institutions and the complexities of belief and trust that are inherent to faith communities. This film is all about the dynamics of the family.

It is difficult to take myself back to a time in which people just didn't know how to recognise the methods of a psychologically depraved man. In fact, the more I reflect on the film the more I feel that Jan's parents, Bob and Mary Ann Broberg, weren't as ignorant as they claim. They must have had some inkling that their actions continued to place Jan in danger but for reasons that even they will probably never know they didn't have the emotional and psychological resources to make different decisions. 

Indie true crime documentary Abducted in Plain Sight. Jan and Berchtold waterskiing 1973.png

Any great piece of art uses tension to create vibrancy, the contrast between different colours, the bass playing against the treble, the weft and the warp. The tension in this film is the authority given to the subjects playing against the unbelievable the things they did. Borgman gives the family a lot of airtime. They are able to tell their side of the story and any opposing view is limited to a few guarded statements from the perpetrator's brother.

The dramatizations are especially compelling in developing a picture of Broberg family life. These reconstructions are so well done that, at first, I thought it was actual archival footage from the family's own records. It was only as the moments depicted began to directly correlate to the recollections of the family in greater and greater detail that I realised that these were moments that wouldn't be captured in home video and must be reconstructions. Further research told me that Borgman used Super 8 to film these sequences so that she could faithfully recreate the era. This technique takes the viewer right into the Broberg's home and into their dilemma. 

Filming true crime documentary Abducted in Plain Sight

The inclusion of recordings of Berchtold is genius. It is truly terrifying to hear his voice as he describes how important Jan is to him.

This film has got right under my skin. Borgman's ability to give so much authority to the family and yet leave so many questions about their reliability is driving me insane. How much did they know about what they were doing? How much do they now accept that they made some really stupid decisions? I won't ever know the answers to these questions but it is a testament to the skill of Borgman and her team that my brain is buzzing. 

True crime doesn't get any better than this.

Abducted in Plain Sight is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, hit the festival website for info on screenings. To find out more about Abducted in Plain Sight, you can visit their website or social pages. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.