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February 13, 2019

True Crime, Teaching, and Top Knots

Skye Borgman MFA ’05 Reflects on Her New Documentary

By Ben Del Vecchio


Director Skye Borgman is always ready for the next challenge, the next journey –– so much so that every year she seems to wind up down rabbit holes of creativity, storytelling, and experience that change her life. And she’s usually on the hunt for the pieces of a story that amount to a great documentary.

“The scripted films I’ve worked on have all been great,” she says, “but they haven’t changed my life. Every single documentary I’ve worked on has. I want to have my eyes opened, I want to have connections strengthened, I want to have more than just a film experience,” says Borgman, coffee cup in hand, hair tied back, passion radiating.

Borgman’s latest documentary, the second she’s directed, debuted on Netflix in January after spending a year on the festival circuit. Abducted in Plain Sight is a true crime documentary that tracks, reframes, revisits, and reveals intricate details of the incredulous story of twelve year-old Jan Broberg who was kidnapped and assaulted not once, but on two separate occasions, by her next door neighbor. The film is based on the book, Stolen Innocence, penned by Jan’s parents, Mary Ann and Bob Broberg.

The film, a combination of interviews and recreations of the events, took five years to make. Its reenactments were meticulously planned. “In order to get our story across and transport our viewers back to the 1970s, I felt that some recreations were the best way to do that,” says Borgman. Shot handheld, on 8MM film, these stylized evocations of moments from Jan’s childhood lend Abducted in Plain Sight a blend of ‘home-movie’ imagery so that the film amounts to more than just talking heads and still photographs. These are ‘memories’ with moments, emotions, and evocations. But the real crux of the film is Borgman’s interviews with Jan and her family, conducted in 8-10 hour sessions at their home in Idaho.

When deciding to adapt the story, Borgman sat for multiple interviews with family members and FBI agents and combed court documents and newspaper articles from the period, too. For Borgman, it was in those extended interviews that she and the Brobergs were “in the war together, connected.”

“To me it was about the parents –– the whole family, the parents and the girls –– wanting to tell this story. To try to save another little girl or another little boy that this could be happening to,” she says.

Since graduating from the School of Cinematic Arts, Borgman has shot in as many as sixty countries. “I make my living as a Director of Photography,” she says, “Every project takes years of commitment. I’ve worked with a director Kum-Kum Bhavani. She’s committed to travelling around the world and telling stories about women in third world countries, instituting change. She comes up with some incredible stories, and I’ve been fortunate to travel and tell stories about people I would never have had the opportunity to get to know otherwise.”

Travelling is what inspired Borgman’s interest in filmmaking. After graduating Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle with her BFA, she embarked on what was supposed to be a three-month vacation in Europe. She returned, five years later –– having lived in parts of Asia, Europe, and Central America –– with a camera in hand and three words in the back of her mind: storytelling, photography, and travel. These, she determined, were the things that meant most to her; all she needed to find was a venue through which to practice them. Filmmaking was the answer, and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts was her next destination.

Although her stories and projects take her around the world, she always ends up back on the West Coast and, for the past five years, back at USC, where’s she’s worked as an adjunct lecturer for cinematography. For Borgman, it’s not just teaching the students, but learning from them, too. “I think we all can get stuck in our ways. And [my students] are always coming up with different ways and approaches to doing things. People who come out of SCA know a little bit about everything, and I love that. I love that we can get on set and if something goes awry we can put our heads together and get back on track.”

Classes, DP-ing, and running her production company, Top Knot Films, which she founded with her husband back in 2010, keep Borgman busy. She’s currently developing another True Crime piece –– this time, a series. Asked if there was a moment when she realized she was doing exactly what she wanted to do, she pauses a moment, before answering.

“I think it was probably Junk Dreams,” she says, referring to her first documentary, which tracked her father and uncle on a boating trip up the coast of her native Alaska. It’s another example of Borgman’s commitment to the craft –– it took seven years to make, and the intimacy with the subjects and personal touches encompass all that is important to Borgman’s creativity:  Photography. Travel. Storytelling. Change. It was also about family, and the payoff was that her father, her main character, loved it. “I’ll have him with me forever,” says Borgman, “I don’t think he ever watched a movie twice, but with that one, he definitely did.” Borgman laughs a moment, lost in thought.

Borgman doesn’t mind that the projects she works on demand years of commitment. It’s the process that’s fulfilling, she says. The time she spends on them means she comes to expect a lot from the final product. In post-production on Abducted in Plain Sight—editing, and dwelling on the reams of material and the story before her—she began to worry about whether audiences would feel as connected to the story as she did. “There were so many nights lying in bed, thinking through all of this. And really just, worried about being truthful, honorable, ethical. Worried about the family, what is this film going to do to this family, will they like it, hate it? Will it ruin their lives will it free them from this burden? And I think all of those things are true.”

For both Borgman, and the Brobergs, the risks were worth the potential rewards, the potential lives affected. The result is a compelling documentary about trust and the way the justice system addresses crimes against girls.

Abducted in Plain Sight is available on Netflix.