Clean Review: A Less Than Sensational Documentary About An Extraordinary Life |  documentary films

Clean Review: A Less Than Sensational Documentary About An Extraordinary Life | documentary films

“People meet me and say, you’re real! They can’t believe it,” says Sandra Pankhurst, the subject of Lachlan Mcleod’s second documentary, Clean.

Pankhurst is a person who has led many lives within one life: adopted as a child, then severely abused by her adoptive parents; coming out of a failed marriage and coming out as a transgender woman in the 1980s; work as a drag queen and sex worker; and eventually started her own cleaning business in the 1990s. Late in life (she died in 2021), Pankhurst became a public figure after the publication of Sarah Krasnostein’s long, heartfelt, and award-winning book about her life and line of work, The Trauma Cleaner, in 2017.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve read Krasnostein’s book; Mcleod is adept at letting the story unfold without unnecessary intervention. How did Pankhurst get to where she is? Why did she embark on such a unique vocation? What was life like for her after The Trauma Cleaner was published? If you’ve read it, Clean, while having no association with Krasnostein’s book, acts as a kind of sequel: in it we see Pankhurst after and until her death.

Pankhurst Cleaning Company is no ordinary business. Based in Frankston, Victoria, Pankhurst and his team specialize in “trauma cleanup”: cleaning up crime scenes and suicide sites, helping the mentally and physically disabled with home maintenance, and cleaning out the homes of hoarders and property of the deceased. Pankhurst, the founder and director of Specialized Trauma Cleanup Services, no longer cleans up when Mcleod starts filming, as she battles serious respiratory illnesses from inhaling toxic chemicals without proper protection in her first few years on the job.

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Although Clean heavily revolves around Pankhurst, interviews with his staff and various clients make the film much more rhizomatic. The film is the complete opposite of what John Berger criticized in Ways of Seeing: “Art that makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies exciting.” Instead, Clean is a tapestry that helps bring a character’s story into the public eye in a way that’s as unflattering as it is intuitive. Here, Mcleod is both interlocutor and witness. Where hoarders, the disabled, and the formerly incarcerated are often subjected to an outsider’s gaze, and as the middle classes aspire to minimalism and Marie Kondo-esque “ordering,” Clean shows that, as Pankhurst says from the principle, “Everyone has a trauma; it’s not demographics, it’s circumstance.”

Still from the 2022 Australian documentary Clean, about the late 'trauma cleanser' Sandra Pankhurst.  Pankhurst died in 2021.
‘Mcleod’s big misstep is adding unnecessary recreations’… a frame from Clean. Photography: Narelle Portanier/MIFF 2022

Shot simply and to a point, there is no fanfare in Clean, just the story and the people telling it, many of whom are sincere and irreverent; a life of hardship and trauma does not allow for self-awareness. We follow the Pankhurst staff, on their way to work, at home or at work, and it’s clear they share their ethos of “promoting care, compassion and dignity” with their clients. They admit their job can be hard — one cleaner likens the work of sorting through waste for used syringes to a game of pick-up sticks — but it can also be worth it.

However, Mcleod’s big misstep is adding unnecessary recreations of events from Pankhurst’s past. Between interviews, there are scenes shot in a muted color palette: a lonely boy sitting at a desk, blood dripping from reconstructed crime scenes, sex workers going about their business and smoking cigarettes. Coupled with Patrick Grigg’s overworked original score, these scenes feel ridiculous; Pankhurst is a natural storyteller, and her no-nonsense presence tells us enough.

That said, there is a certain vulnerability in Pankhurst that shows up in Clean. She tries to remain stoic, even through bouts of gasping for breath, and abruptly changes the subject when asked a question that catches her off guard. Before going on stage to speak at a conference, she casually tells someone that a brain tumor has been discovered. Like the elaborate makeup she dons every day, Mcleod shows us that Pankhurst’s mask is well-worn, built through decades of trauma and her dogged determination to leave it all behind.

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