SXSW 2022: Clean Review
Expanding upon her own traumatic life experiences, Sandra Pankhurst and the services she provides with Melbourne’s Trauma Cleaning Services are an example of empathy and support systems crucial to helping people move forward through pain. Lachlan McLeod’s Clean showcases the ins and outs of trauma cleaning – the act of cleaning up murders, suicides, hoarding situations, and other tasks many would shirk the responsibility – and in the process discovers people that see their specific brand of cleaning as more than just tidying.
Anchored by the presence of Sandra Pankhurst, founder of Specialized Trauma Cleaning Services in Melbourne, Australia, Clean has a solid foundation to build upon. A transgender woman whose own past gave her the ability to offer assistance to others in a unique manner, Pankhurst centers McLeod’s documentary and wades into the empathy involved in being a trauma cleaner as opposed to the horrifying situations that sometimes require their services. It’s through the group of people employed by Pankhurst’s business that McLeod discovers genuinely touching moments of humanity.
Not every job that requires trauma cleaners is inherently harrowing though. What works best is when the documentary follows the workers on some of their jobs that are more people-facing, as they come in to clean places that have become inhabitable but maintain sensitivity to the why and how people have their homes fall into disrepair. Hoarding situations are one thing, but watching trauma cleaners regularly visit those who simply do not have the ability to maintain their living spaces offers a glimpse into the necessity of the service. There’s a therapeutic power to what trauma cleaners do and it’s evident in those interactions with people who require their services.
Pankhurst, who passed away in 2021, is the centerpiece of McLeod’s film. A vocal woman who lived many lives and has welcomed the spotlight as a means of sharing her experiences, she offers stable support for Clean to rest upon outside of tagging along for various cleaning jobs. McLeod provides slight stylistic flourishes with dramatic re-enactments of periods in Pankhurst’s life juxtaposed against interviews and conference talks as McLeod remains behind the scenes watching as her physical health continues to deteriorate. It’s a subtle way of providing heft to an otherwise standard filmmaking approach, exemplifying a woman who persevered to help better the world.
If there are faults with Clean it’s that it never really feels like the trips with the trauma cleaning crew (which comprise a decent portion of the film) cohesively come together with the plotline around its founder. Momentum falters every time the film shifts focus, largely due to Sandra having stepped away from working the jobs due to her health. She’s the centerpiece of the film and where it finds its greatest strengths, but even with other employees sharing their feelings on trauma cleaning, it all feels slightly disjointed thematically without Sandra along for the ride – something which she used to do all the time. The employees have a level of connection with clients that shines through, but as the film rarely delves into why they gravitate towards a job like this, it just doesn’t click with Sandra’s candid nature.
Clean is an insightful look into how people aid others in moving past traumatic experiences. It doesn’t always delve below the surface, but its moments of genuine human connection and empathy demonstrate the power of support systems. McLeod strikes gold with his following along with Sandra in the last few years of her life, highlighting a resilient woman who fought through hardship and used that experience to bring help to others. A thoughtful examination of how trauma cleaning is more than just a service – it’s a step forward in processing pain.