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Top Knot Films

Bob Berchtold with Jan Broberg in 1974
Top Knot Films

Documentary

Wolf tactics

Abducted in Plain Sight recounts the disturbing kidnapping of Jan Broberg

Thanks to the trail podcasts have blazed, true-crime tales have become a major trend in entertainment. One of the most buzzed-about current examples is Abducted in Plain Sight, a documentary that debuted on Netflix in January. Though Netflix rarely releases ratings information, media coverage suggests the film is drawing plenty of viewers.

Drawing on interviews, old recordings, and court and FBI records, director Skye Borgman recounts the 1974 kidnapping and sexual assault of 12-year-old Jan Broberg by 40-year-old family friend Bob Berchtold.

Though it steers clear of profanity and salacious images, the film doesn’t make for pleasant viewing, and parents should take the TV-14 rating seriously. Not only does the now-adult Jan Broberg describe the rapes she suffered with clinical specificity, we also hear from both of her parents about their individual sexual encounters with Berchtold.

While prurient interest in such shocking twists no doubt accounts for some of the movie’s viral status, Borgman handles these confessions responsibly. A lot of painful truth—about the escalating nature of sin, for example—comes from watching Bob and Mary Ann Broberg crumple into tears as they recount their guilt.

After the Brobergs betray their marriage vows, Berchtold has an easy job manipulating their shame to gain further access to Jan. While their first responsibility should be protecting their children, again and again the Brobergs make the cowardly choice to instead prioritize their own reputations as good churchgoing Mormons.

As do other pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church and the entertainment industry, Abducted in Plain Sight sounds strong warning notes about grooming tactics. Long before he committed his crimes, Berchtold ingratiated himself to the entire Broberg family. It’s easy to scream in outrage at Bob and Mary Ann Broberg’s negligent naiveté, but then we remember how many similar stories are still playing out today. A friend you see every week at church, a trusted pastor—the wolves know the best places to hide among the sheep. Especially when the sheep are so often willing to cover their tracks for them.

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Netflix

Kaylyn, an Instagrammer and aspiring model from Calabasas, in Social Animals
Netflix

Documentary

Me, my selfie, and I

In Social Animals, teenagers discuss social media fame and brutality

Jane Austen wrote novels of manners providing a sketch of societal rules in the 19th century. In the new documentary Social Animals, coming soon to Netflix, teenager Humza Deas explains the social customs of the digital world: “The rules are unspoken. But they will be spoken to you if you break them.” 

The smartphone habits of youngsters are a mystery to some of their parents and even to many millennials who went through the formative years of middle school and high school without social media. Social Animals pulls back the curtain by following three teenagers around in their social media lives. It seems like such a simple concept for a documentary, but this film feels revelatory and fresh.

Two of the film’s subjects are teenagers who rose to social media stardom: first Kaylyn, who goes to a Christian school, lives in a Calabasas mansion, and says she has wanted to be a Victoria’s Secret model since she was little (yep!). Then there’s Humza, a skateboarder and daredevil photographer in New York. The final subject, Emma, is a teenager in Ohio (also at a Christian school) who experienced the brutality, rather than the adulation, of social media.

Social media has a dark side, but the film also avoids demonizing Instagram, the primary app featured here. For Humza, Instagram launched him from humble beginnings where he couldn’t afford a camera into a business where he can show his vertigo-inducing talents, taking pictures on forbidden bridges and skyscrapers.

Interspersed through the three teens’ narratives are entertaining interviews with an assortment of other teens about the new cloud-based society of social media—for example, one girl explains that people don’t date anymore, they just send direct messages. The film shows a yawning isolation that many have noticed in the age of hyper-connectivity. Humza, for his hundreds of thousands of followers, mentions that in real life “I’m usually just by myself.”

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Netflix

Defense attorney Kathleen Zellner (right)
Netflix

Documentary

Making her case

In Season 2 of Making a Murderer, a defense attorney re-examines the evidence used to convict her client

It’s been three years since Netflix released the true crime docuseries that sparked nationwide debate over corruption in the criminal justice system. Now Season 2 of Making a Murderer finds Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, still behind bars serving life sentences for the 2005 murder of Theresa Halbach.

Wisconsin authorities argued Making a Murderer’s first season was one-sided and left out key information. The most important information being that Avery’s sweat was found beneath the hood latch of Halbach’s car. Making a Murderer’s Season 2 sets out to answer that question and others by once again combing through the evidence as Avery and Dassey’s lawyers appeal their convictions.

Leading the charge is Steven Avery’s new defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner, a lawyer famous for overturning wrongful convictions. Zellner wants to prove that Avery and Dassey didn’t kill Halbach, but she also wants to find who did.

Throughout Season 2, Zellner becomes more private investigator than attorney and replaces Steven Avery as the protagonist. Zellner’s team re-creates multiple crime scenes and consults forensic experts on every piece of evidence used to convict Avery and Dassey: the blood samples found in Halbach’s car, Halbach’s cremated body, that DNA under the hood latch, and more.

The extensive time spent on this science makes the 10 new episodes feel like 10 CSI episodes and less like a documentary. Since the Halbach family still understandably refused to participate in Making a Murderer’s Season 2, calling the show “crass entertainment,” the episodes feel more one-sided than the last and seem focused on proving Avery and Dassey’s innocence rather than questioning the criminal justice system.

Still, the series can provide valuable insight into the criminal justice system and the minds of defense attorneys and prosecutors. Whatever audiences conclude about the guilt or innocence of Avery and Dassey, the series shows the consequences of sin are vast and far-reaching. Whoever took Theresa Halbach’s life also left a wake of other victims.

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