Clean review – a sensationless documentary about an extraordinary life | Documentary films
“People meet me and they tell me, you are 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 in one life: adopted as a child, then severely abused by his adoptive parents; coming out of a failed marriage and coming out as a transgender woman in the 1980s; working as a drag queen and sex worker; and eventually starting 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 expansive, heartfelt and award-winning book about her life and work , The Trauma Cleaner, in 2017.
It doesn’t matter that you have read Krasnostein’s book; Mcleod is adept at letting the story unfold without unnecessary intervention. How did Pankhurst get where she is? Why did she embark on such a unique vocation? What was his life like after The Trauma Cleaner was published? If you’ve read it, then Clean, while having no association with Krasnostein’s book, acts as a sequel of sorts: we see Pankhurst in it right from the start and until his death.
Pankhurst’s cleaning business is no ordinary business. Based in Frankston, Victoria, Pankhurst and her team specialize in ‘trauma cleanup’: swabbing crime scenes and suicide sites, assisting the mentally and physically disabled with home maintenance, and cleaning homes of hoarders. and estates of deceased persons. Pankhurst, the founder and director of Specialized Trauma Cleaning Services, no longer cleans herself when Mcleod begins filming, as she battles major respiratory illnesses from inhaling toxic chemicals without proper protection during her early years on the job. .
Although Clean largely revolves around Pankhurst, interviews with his staff and various clients make the film even more rhizomatic. The film is the opposite of what John Berger criticized in Ways of Seeing: “The art that makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies exciting”. Instead, Clean is a tapestry that helps present a character’s story to the public eye in a way that’s as unsensual as it is intuitive. Here, McLeod is both interlocutor and witness. When hoarders, disabled and previously incarcerated people are often subjected to an outsider’s gaze – and as the middle classes yearn for minimalism and Marie Kondo-style “decluttering” – Clean shows that, as Pankhurst puts it from the start, “Everyone has a trauma; it’s not the demographics, it’s the circumstance.
Shot clearly and from a distance, there’s no fanfare in Clean – just the story and the people telling it, many of whom are candid and irreverent; a life of hardship and trauma does not allow for self-awareness. We follow the staff at Pankhurst – on the way to work, at home or at work – and it’s clear that they share their philosophy of “promoting care, compassion and dignity” with their clients. Their job can be tough, they admit – one cleaner compares the work of sorting debris for used syringes to a set of pick-up sticks – but it can also be worth it.
However, McLeod’s main misstep is to add unnecessary re-enactments of events from Pankhurst’s past. Between the interviews there are scenes shot in a muted color palette – of a lone boy sitting at a desk, blood dripping in reconstructed crime scenes, sex workers performing their jobs and smoking cigarettes. Paired with Patrick Grigg’s overstuffed original score, these scenes seem bathing; Pankhurst is a natural storyteller, and her no-nonsense presence tells us enough.
That being said, there is a certain vulnerability in Pankhurst that shines through in Clean. She tries to remain stoic, even through bouts of labored breathing, 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 tumor has been discovered in her brain. Much like the elaborate makeup she puts on every day, Mcleod shows us that Pankhurst’s mask is well-worn, built through decades of trauma and her stubborn determination to leave it all behind.