Abducted In Plain Sight is one of the most harrowing true-crime documentaries I’ve ever seen. Abducted In Plain Sight is a remarkable and unforgettable survivor story. When facing the former, it’s important to remember the latter. It’ll pull you through this unnerving doc’s many, many breath-snatching revelations. Because there’s stranger-than-fiction, and then there’s this: the story of an adolescent girl who was abducted not once, but twice by a trusted family friend. Snarled in are elements of brainwashing, blackmail, arson, death threats, and alien abduction. Yet beyond that, this Oxford Film Festival discovery is a story of how she, Jan Broberg, and her family survived, refusing to let one monstrous man destroy them.
Documentarian Skye Borgman introduces audiences to the Broberg family, who in the 1970s were plagued by a charismatic and masterfully manipulative pedophile, Robert “B” Berchtold. Not only did he groom their 12-year-old daughter Jan so he might molest her, B also charmed and seduced her parents, as a means of getting what he wanted. In the fall of 1974, B kidnapped Jan, fleeing to Mexico. But her parents so trusted this friend and neighbor that they didn’t call the police until days later. It’s the first moment you might cast judgment on Jan’s parents. But Borgman’s deft direction notes the context of this time, a naïve era before “pedophile” was neither a common word nor concept. So how could any parent imagine the designs B had on young Jan? His evil was completely inconceivable to them. After all, he was such a nice man with a wife and kids of his own.
Though full of outrageous revelations—each more shocking than the last—Abducted In Plain Sight doesn’t exploit its scandalous content. Instead, Borgman shows a brilliant emotional intelligence, unfurling the story in intimate and heartbreaking one-on-one interviews with Jan, her parents, sisters, and the beleaguered FBI investigator still haunted by this case. Through these, she gives us a thorough and horrifying portrait of the charming but vile B. Yet her focus is forever on this story’s hero, Jan.
A wealth of family photos show us a Jan before the abductions, smiling, playful, radiant. Re-enactments treated to look like saturated Super-8 footage fill in the blanks of her captivity and subsequent moodiness. With the former, Borgman presents a clear picture of a little girl who seems so familiar. With the latter, she takes us swiftly to the darkest corners of this story, cutting back to grown Jan, teary-eyed yet reminding us that there is a dawn after all this darkness.
Often, I was reminded of Netflix’s stellar crime-doc miniseries, The Keepers. Both feature frank recounting of child molestation from the women who lived through it. Both take pains to detail how a vile rapist hid in plain sight. Yet each’s purpose is to give voice to the victims who survived him, and now speak out to educate others through advocacy and sharing even the most personal, controversial, and shameful truths of their story. Listening to these stories is far from easy, but it’s the least we can do.
When hearing a true-crime story, we the audience often prefer a certain sense of safe distance from its victims. They have our sympathy of course. Yet, we allow our judgment to be a barrier, which we naively believe will keep such a tragedy from coming to our door. You’d have spotted that bad man from a mile away. You’d never have gone to the woods with a stranger, or drank alone at a bar, or existed in the world as a woman. It’s not our most generous thought, but one borne of fear. But Abducted In Plain Sight won’t let you assuage your rising panic with the judgment of the Broberg parents. Sure, you will gasp and curse as the Broberg parents recount the access they allowed B to Jan ahead of her kidnapping. Their mistakes were many. But in these astounding interviews, the family is so frank and vulnerable about these events, that it’s difficult to distance yourself from them with self-shielding judgment. Their insight and candidness reminds us in every moment these are real people who tried to protect their family from a merciless predator and failed repeatedly.
As shocked and outraged as I was by one dizzying reveal after another, my heart went out to them. It’s a difficult thing to admit you’ve made a mistake, even harder when that mistake is as a parent. And to do so in this public way, where the whole world could judge you? It’s an awe-striking level of bravery, and ultimately selflessness, because it’s all done to warn us about the B who might be lurking in our playgrounds, our churches, our homes.
As the Me Too movement courses through public discourse, this is a time where we deeply need survivor stories. We need to confront the darkness that lies in the hearts of men, then shine a light so their victims can move forward freed of shame. We need to recognize the methods of manipulation that abusers employ, but also our own complicated complicity. This last point is one of the film’s most challenging aspects. It won’t offer a simple platitude but demands your attention and consideration.
Abducted In Plain Sight is an absolutely outstanding crime doc. Ruthlessly riveting, Borgman’s blend of family photos, artful re-enactments, tear-streaked talking heads, and eerie audiotapes grips you at your core and won’t let go. This is a must-see for Murderinos (A.K.A. true crime enthusiasts). But more than that, it’s a celebration of love in the face of wretched, persistent evil. And I suspect a lot of us could use that right now.
This review was previously published under the film’s former title, Forever ‘B’.