From the director of Big In Japan (a doco about an Australian man chasing fame overseas) comes a story about an Australian woman who managed to reach such heights by getting her hands dirty. In Lachlan Mcleod’s Clean, we follow Sandra Pankhurst and the staff of her trauma cleaning business into the homes of Victoria’s most vulnerable and (oftentimes) deceased, carrying out the grim tasks that once fell into the hands of grieving relatives. A shallow dig into Sandra’s past sheds light on the secrets and struggles that propelled her towards this remarkable vocation and pays respect to the important work done both by herself and her staff.
As Rod (one of Sandra’s employees) asserts, trauma cleaners do the “shit work” that many wouldn’t deign to do. They are the quiet few who regularly declutter hoarder houses, clean up murder, death and suicide scenes, conduct post-raid scrubs of former meth labs, and prepare deceased estates for 20-something property managers who’ll only enter the residence once the smell has dissipated. These dedicated individuals also clean for those on society’s outskirts who can’t take care of themselves; disabled people, the mentally unwell and those dealing with addiction are seen by STC staff in a different light than from the rest of society and it’s a principle that’s been maintained since the company’s conception.
Sandra began Specialised Trauma Cleaning (STC) from the back of a van and over 30 years, has taken the business to its full service headquarters in Carrum Downs. Based on her belief that families of victims have enough trauma to surmount without having to associate their departed loved ones with the crime scenes left behind, her determination to protect the vulnerable grew as her business did.
But these humble beginnings were not without their troubles as we discover very early that Sandra suffers from serious lung conditions, brought on through lack of access to correct PPE when dealing with harsh chemicals and cleaning agents. The film opens on her laboured breathing and it seems as though she may be mid-panic attack; we’ll soon find out that this is a woman who has carefully curated her life to remove anything she can’t control and that panic is a state she’s long since abandoned.
Mcleod approaches Sandra’s history with an assumption of unknowing in his audience and speaking as a Western Australian with no prior knowledge of her, this works quite well. The twists and turns the film takes are cleverly played for intrigue and Sandra’s casual demeanour favours this method. In a similar vein to Madeleine Martiniello’s Palazzo Di Cozzo, it’s likely that Victorians are familiar with Sandra Pankhurst, particularly through her increased public profile after the 2017 release of Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner. She also embarked on a public speaking career after her doctors advised that she could no longer attend cleans, allowing her glamourously made-up face and endearing personality to gain more exposure.
Her history is too interesting and background too readily available not to discuss, and they play a large part in forming the principles of compassion and professionalism that she’s exhibited throughout her career. While Sandra herself is unabashedly upfront about certain aspects of her life, Mcleod chooses to delicately introduce them. This is never more evident than when Sandra points herself out in an old family photo as our eyes adjust to what is clearly a little boy. Sandra is a trans woman who finally settled into who she was meant to be in the 1980s after marrying and fathering two children and sadly, leaving them behind. Past trauma likely played a large part in this decision as she allows us a look back.
Having been given up for adoption and suffering neglect and abuse from her adoptive parents (once they had two biological children, they decided they “no longer wanted” their adoptive child), Sandra dabbled in drugs, sex work and domestic life before giving them all up and focusing on her healing journey. It’s delightfully apparent from the snippets Mcleod shows us that part of her healing comes through language, and Sandra’s vocabulary is as big as her heart.
With a mouth like a sailor and a penchant for lobbing truth bombs at unsuspecting civilians, Sandra is a force to be reckoned with. Mcleod captures a quick chat before she gives a motivational talk to a large audience; minutes before sauntering on stage, she tells the host that she’s just been diagnosed with a brain tumour, before casually adding in “but it’s benign.” One of the first phrases we hear escape her lips refers to general workplace burnout – “I worked at the Sacred Heart mission yesterday. Fuck, I was rooted after that” – and beautifully juxtaposes the pristine deportment of our subject with her compartmentalised tones.
But there’s a sadness that accompanies Sandra’s quirkiness as it’s clear that much of it stems from the impenetrable wall of self-defence constructed around personal trauma and feelings of not belonging. She says she never really wanted a family and that’s why she’s not fussed about seeking out her biological mother, but in a subplot involving the search for that very person, she cannot hide her enthusiasm upon hearing of her mother’s personality traits and interests. While happy to tell salacious stories from her youth, she rarely talks about her children, even when it’s determined later in the film that she’s reconnected with her son.
If Sandra’s employees fashion these same walls, they don’t show it. We follow several staff members, both into the houses of clients and their own, as we get a glimpse of what it’s like to work on the frontlines of trauma cleaning. The staff under Sandra’s employ do laborious work and are on call all hours of the day and night – the same as many above their pay grade – but they turn up to each rat-infested, blood-stained house with the urgency and compassion of true first responders. The joy emitting from the laughs of three women trying to direct a family of rats toward the front door of the residence du jour shows a lighter side to the darkness inherent in their work and offers a breather from some of the more serious themes of the film.
What I love about Clean is how much it’s not; Mcleod lingers on an STC client named Devon who’s being ‘moved on’ from his clutter (and syringe)-filled residence, allowing him to hurl profanities at any audience members who would judge him by his cover. It’s almost as confronting as being told to “fuck you all” in person, a feat rarely accomplished from behind the safety of a screen.
Where Clean missteps is in the odd decision to include re-enactments of Sandra’s early life and in ending the film on the same blood stains and splatters that it opens with. The tone in these moments isn’t quite fitting with the brightness of its subject and the further away from Sandra the film gets, the less focused it becomes.
Ultimately, Clean is a stylistically simple take on an extraordinary woman and her legacy, elevated by the sheer resilience of its central character and the personality she exudes. Sandra’s insistence that many of us are only one or two unfortunate circumstances away from being in the dire positions depicted in the film is a lesson in empathy that we could all stand to learn. 7/10.
Clean is in cinemas now.