Content Warning: This film (and review) contains details about sexual assault and child abuse.
Synopsis: On October 17, 1974, 12 year old Jan Broberg was kidnapped by her next door neighbor and parents’ best friend. Abducted In Plain Sight is a feature length documentary about the stranger-than-fiction, true story of the Brobergs; an Idaho family who fell under the spell of a sociopathic neighbour with designs on their twelve-year-old daughter.
Initially it seems like the titular act at the center of Abducted in Plain Sight is an open and shut case: 12 year old Jan Broberg is kidnapped by her pedophile neighbour, Robert “B” Berchtold, and goes missing for over a month. The documentary starts relatively innocuously by outlining the relationship between the Broberg family and their overly friendly neighbour, then dives into the kidnapping of Jan.
It is once the kidnapping occurs and the documentary flashes back to the years of odd events leading up to the crime that Abducted in Plain Sight moves out the realm of run-of-the-mill true crime and into something much, much more bizarre. The depth of “B”s manipulation of Mary Ann and Bob Broberg in order to gain access to their daughter is frankly astounding: it includes the sexual seduction of both parents and convincing them that his Church-advocated therapy for pedophilia involves sleeping in Jan’s bed. The 70s truly were a simpler time.
The events that follow don’t get any less shocking. The details of Jan’s abduction include sleeping pills disguised as allergy medication, an alien narrative about a “mission” that requires Jan and “B” to procreate and a child bride-situation in Mexico. Even when Jan is eventually recovered and returned to her parents, the madness continues: “B” continually finds ways to blackmail Bob and Mary Ann, to manipulate Jan into believing she is in love with him and to gain sexual access to her. And this is before she is abducted a second time.
As a film, Abducted in Plain Sight adopts many standard tropes of a conventional documentary. The film is primarily comprised of talking head interviews with the members of the Broberg family, with occasional appearances by the FBI agent in charge of Jan’s case and “B”s brother, Joe. Thankfully adult Jan is also included, which reassuringly eliminates any fear that the child at the center of the drama might come to an unhappy ending for those who are unfamiliar with the real life details. In addition to staged re-enactments of dramatic scenes (filmed like grainy home video to complement actual footage), director Skye Borgman pans across newspaper headlines, subtitles phone calls over still images and uses typewriter font on black background to keep track of important dates and events.
The visual aesthetic may be familiar, but the tale being told in Abducted in Plain Sight is anything but. It is a frankly batsh*t crazy story, with more outrageous twists and turns than anything in conventional fiction films. While there’s a slight celebratory vibe at the end of the film with the suggestion that the family has persevered and that Jan has (mostly) overcome her childhood trauma, the documentary serves as a shocking reminder of how naive and simplistic parents and the criminal justice system perceived child kidnapping and pedophilia back in the 70s when these events took place. Abducted in Plain Sight contains a multitude of bizarre and shocking developments that must be seen to be believed, but let us hope that they are only so astounding because it would be impossible for events such as these to occur in modern times.
Or perhaps that’s just my naivety showing…
For more information about the film, visit the official website here.