This absorbing and inspirational documentary focuses on Melbourne trauma cleaner Sandra Pankhurst, unfurling the stories behind her varied life and her messy-but-crucial line of work.
September 15, 2022
"It's a shock to the system. It's a change to the everyday, regular routine. It's where the unhappy gene comes out — and it's a sign of the times today." That's the gloriously candid and empathetic Sandra Pankhurst on trauma, a topic she has literally made her business. Later in Clean, the documentary that tells her tale, she describes herself as a "busy nose and a voyeur"; however, that's not what saw her set up Melbourne's Specialised Trauma Cleaning. For three decades now, her company has assisted with "all the shitty jobs that no one really wants to do," as she characterises it: crime-scene cleanups, including after homicides, suicides and overdoses; deceased estates, such as bodies found some time after their passing; and homes in squalor, to name a few examples. As she explains in the film, Pankhurst is eager to provide such cleaning services because everyone deserves that help — and because we're all just a couple of unfortunate turns away from needing it.
The 2008 movie Sunshine Cleaning starring Amy Adams (Dear Evan Hansen) and Emily Blunt (Jungle Cruise) fictionalised the trauma-cleaning realm; if that's your touchstone at the outset of Clean, prepare for far less gloss, for starters. Prepare for much more than a look at a fascinating but largely ignored industry, too, because filmmaker Lachlan Mcleod (Big in Japan) is as rightly interested in Pankhurst as he is in her line of work. Everything she says hangs in the air with meaning, even as it all bounces lightly from her lips ("life can be very fragile", "every dog has its day, and a mongrel has two" and "life dishes you out a good story and then life dishes you out a shit one" are some such utterances). Everything feels matter of fact and yet also immensely caring through her eyes, regardless of the situation that her Frankston-headquartered employees are attending to.
Sometimes, STC does confront harrowing and grimy messes that could be ripped straight out of a crime drama, but ensuring that the families don't have to swab up themselves after a gory incident is a point of pride. Sometimes, it aids people with disability or illness by playing housekeeper when they can't, or sorts through a lifetime of possessions when someone has turned to hoarding. There's no judgement directed anyone's way, not by Pankhurst or the crew of committed cleaners who've formed a family-like bond under her watch. It takes a particular sort of person to do this gig, everyone notes, and the group is as sensitive and considerate as their boss because most have experienced their own hardships. They can also see what she sees: "everyone's got trauma; it's not the demographic, it's the circumstance".
Pankhurst's company and tale isn't new to the public eye, thanks to Sarah Krasnostein's award-winning 2018 book The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay and Disaster — and both there and here, the role she has played and the fortitude she has displayed while sifting through her own personal traumas earns merited attention. Mcleod keeps his focus on STC for the film's first third, aided by Pankhurst's frank insights, but the many layers to the business, its workers and its clients are paralleled in her own multifaceted story. Clean takes her lead, though; never within its frames does Pankhurst offer up a simple assessment of herself, other than saying she'd liked to be remembered "as a kind human being — nothing more, nothing less". As a transgender woman who was adopted at birth, grew up in an abusive household, married and had a family, performed as a drag queen, undertook sex work, survived rape and drugs, transitioned, and became one of Australia's first female funeral directors, nothing about her can be deduced to a few mere words.
The raw honesty, quick wit and spirited sense of humour continues as Pankhurst mentions many of these details, largely in passing or onstage when she becomes a motivational speaker after health woes stop her from cleaning. It's due to her medical conditions that she's vigilant about staff wearing PPE on the job — Clean's naturalistic, on-the-ground shoot, with cinematographer Louis Dai (Hakamada: The Longest Held Death Row Inmate in the World) behind the lens, began in 2019 well before the pandemic. There it is again: that unfaltering, highly moving, deeply inspirational compassion for others, whether they're the vulnerable struggling or employees lending the former a hand day in, day out. Clean looks upon Pankhurst with as much industrial-strength humanity as she sees in the world around her, even one where "people die in horrific ways every day", but never smoothes away her faults, doubts, rough experiences or tough edges.
Mclean and Dai both double as the doco's editors and, as they begin splicing Pankhurst's time away from the business together with her team's everyday duties across the feature's second two acts, a touch of movie magic does filter in. To provide a wider array of imagery for the film's two strands, Mclean adds a number of brief recreations of Pankhurst's childhood and younger years, and of reconstructed crime scenes. They're unnecessary, and also don't suit the already affecting and absorbing tone that springs from Pankhurst and her employees telling it plain but with brimming understanding. There's a tender tenor in Patrick Grigg's (Australiana) score, too, that finds a better balance. Those dramatisations don't jumble the film by any means; they're just superfluous.
Another reason that Clean's reenactments don't sit well: the feature has such a wealth of narratives to follow anyway, including time spent with specific members of the STC crew such as Brian Gaciabu, Rod Wyatt and others. Pankhurst gets the chance to search for her birth mother, her health gets pushed further to the fore, and some of the clients that the company helps also get a glimpse of the spotlight. Mcleod could've made several documentaries or a series about the overall situation, and even simply about the no-nonsense but endlessly entertaining Pankhurst; that COVID-19 impacted his timeline is apparent. This energetic but thoughtful tribute still cleans up, though — and that it has its imperfections fits every tale that it unfurls.