In a case of saving the best for last, the final film I saw at SXSW was the documentary Clean by director Lachlan McLeod. It was one of those wonderful docs in which you had no or little knowledge about the subject or the people involved – trauma cleaners. People who clean up when there has been a disaster, hoarding, accident/suicide/murder scenes, drug labs, or any other situation that has left a mess. They go places and clean up stuff others would not even touch. Never even really thought about who took care of these types of things. I have always loved docs that allow you to discover new aspects of life here on this planet.
The human side of the documentary is provided by Sandra Pankhurst, the owner of Melbourne’s Specialized Trauma Cleaning Services. Sandra has been in the business for several decades and through her, we learn about the ins and outs of the business plus get a look into her life. Both of these sides of the film show us the human element of business and the fragility of life, even with the strongest amongst us.
Trauma cleaning is not just a means to an end for Sandra or simply a way to make money. She is acutely attuned to trauma and its effects having experienced plenty in her own life. So she and her employees few of whom we get to know over the course of the film, bring compassion, honour and trust into how they do the work. They don’t just clean places or sites, but they provide an ear, a hand or hope to those they work for.
After just a few minutes you can already tell what a great human Sandra is. How she cares for her work and her people. How much she loves her work also comes through. So, that makes it even harder for her (and the viewer) when due to her health issues (she has a chronic lung disease due to her early years of working with the harsh chemicals and no PPE), Sandra has to step away from her business. That does not stop her from contributing to life; it’s just who she is.
With her newfound free time, Sandra writes a book about her life, begins to give talks and decides to look for her biological parents. Once that nugget comes out (that she was adopted as a child) a bunch of other things about her life are revealed. Like that she suffered terrible abuse from her alcoholic adoptive father, that she is a trans woman, that while still living as a man she married a woman and fathered a couple of children before they divorced and a couple of other things. The woman has definitely lived a full life! And we begin to understand that this is a woman who understands pain and being seen as an outsider in society, so it goes a long way towards explaining the empathy she brings to the work she does. That she lives a life anchored in the idea that there is always hope in any circumstance.
Much of the story of Clean is told via interviews with Sandra and her employees. They take us behind the scenes of what they do (that it is not just cleaning) and the effect it might have on their own lives. You walk away from McLeod’s film with a new understanding about trauma cleaning and a respect for the people who do it.