Film

We Need To Talk About ‘Abducted In Plain Sight’, The Explosive Crime Doco On Netflix

You will not believe some of the things that happen in this film.

Abducted In Plain Sight is a shocking new Netflix documentary

In our entertainment-saturated streaming age, documentaries live and die on the “Holy shit” factor, and no true crime documentary in recent memory has as many “Holy shit” moments as Abducted In Plain Sight.

Abducted In Plain Sight was produced in 2017, but dropped on Netflix this past January. The 90-minute film had little advance fanfare or PR; its director, Skye Borgman, is still relatively unknown in filmmaking circles, and its unbelievable story is too shocking and shattering to easily condense into a trailer.

But over the weeks since its release, and without the help of Netflix or any major press outlets, the profile of Abducted In Plain Sight has slowly begun to grow. Now, the documentary has become that rarest of things: a true word of mouth sensation, the kind of film you watch, writhing in discomfort throughout, and then immediately encourage your families and friends to check out, desperate for someone to discuss its twists and turns with.

The set-up of Abducted In Plain Sight initially appears simple. In 1974, a member of the Broberg family, Jan, was abducted by her neighbour and family friend, Robert “B” Berchtold, a paedophile.

But suddenly, 20 minutes in, the story hits one of several gobsmacking twists. Before long, Abducted In Plain Sight is no longer a documentary about a simple kidnapping; it’s about manipulation, repressed sexuality, abuse, brainwashing, and — unbelievably — UFOs.

Abducted In Plain Sight raises a multitude of questions about ethics, consent and the way we tell true crime stories. First, if you haven’t already, seek out the documentary and watch it. It’s highly flawed and deeply infuriating viewing — but you won’t regret a single minute you’ve spent with it.

For those who have already watched it, we have a lot to talk about.

Extensive spoilers for Abducted In Plain Sight follow.


Abducted In Plain Sight and what we sacrifice when we tell true crime stories

There’s a lot about Abducted In Plain Sight that’s shocking and disturbing. There’s the abuse and brainwashing that Jan suffered at Berchtold’s hands; the ‘mission’ that he set for her; the fact that Berchtold’s brother seemed strangely unfussed that the man appeared ‘the happiest that he’d ever been’ while married to a 12-year-old girl.

But arguably the most disturbing twist of the documentary comes right at the end, when director Borgman goes out of her way to excuse Bob and Mary Ann Broberg, Jan’s parents and people who by all accounts repeatedly facilitated the abuse of their daughter.

Of course, Jan herself explicitly says that she has forgiven her parents. But Borgman, for her part, never really attempts to probe at Bob and Mary Ann’s story, instead taking it all at face value. She’s never heard on camera asking them questions; they never seem to be questioned on some of their more outrageous defences. From start to finish Borgman, and in turn the documentary she is making, seem firmly on their side.

Not, mind you, that Abducted In Plain Sight would work as a hitpiece, designed to attack Mary Ann and Bob. But, somewhere in between a hitpiece and the film that we have been delivered there is a nuanced, complicated story that pushes back on the parents without casting them as villains; that truly calls them into account for their role in a sad, horrific story.


Where the truth lies

Let’s say that Bob and Mary Ann were brainwashed to the extent that they claim. Let’s say that Berchtold was such a charismatic, alluring figure, that they simply could not resist him.

If that is true — and Borgman never really supplies evidence from anyone other than Bob and Mary Ann that it might be — there are some things that could potentially be excused.

One could theoretically excuse, for example, the fact that Mary Ann and Bob waited days before they reported their daughter missing both times she was abducted. One could excuse, with some difficulty, the fact that Bob refused to press charges against Berchtold because he was worried that his homosexual relations with Berchtold would be released to the public. And one could try to ignore the fact that Mary Ann resumed sexual relations with a man who she well knew had abducted her daughter.

But it seems nigh-on possible to imagine that one could excuse the fact that the Brobergs allowed Berchtold, a grown man, to sleep in the same bed as their daughter, four days a week for six months.

Never does Borgman show her or her crew pushing back on or questioning the claims of the elder Brobergs. Never does she ask them if they called the (debunked, defrauded, out of work) psychiatrist who told them Berchtold had to sleep in the same bed as their daughter.

And, most infuriatingly of all, never does she point out to the Brobergs that they have already admitted on camera that they had long been disturbed and uncomfortable with Berchtold’s fixation on their daughter before they agreed to let him sleep in bed with her.

The documentary attempts to frame the Brobergs as being utterly clueless. They are, Borgman clearly wants to assert, products of their time. They’re devout members of a church, living in a society where terms like ‘paedophile’ were not widespread.

All of that might be true. Despite the reputation the era sometimes has for being full of ‘free love’ and hippiedom, the ’70s were characterised by sexual repression and ignorance.

But no matter how clueless you might be, allowing a grown man to sleep in the same bed as your daughter seems like a step too far. That doesn’t seem to be a matter of ignorance. That seems to be something else entirely.

But Borgman never seeks to hold the Brobergs accountable. In fact, she never really wants to hold anyone accountable except for Berchtold. His brother, who seems to have been well-aware that Berchtold was a paedophile for years before finally doing anything about it; Berchtold’s wife, who at the very least played a key part in trying to silence the Brobergs… None of these people are morally probed.

Instead, they are cast aside so that Borgman can instead focus on one villain, and tie up a complicated and ethically troubling story in a nice, neat conclusion, with the demon banished and the daughter forgiving her family.

No true story is that simple, because life is not that simple. Tales like the Brobergs’ are complicated, and sprawling, and involve dozens of characters who are neither damnable villains, or hard-working saints. And maybe, somewhere along our collective path towards total true crime obsession, we have forgotten that.