“Life can be very fragile,” says Sandra Pankhurst, the indomitable businesswoman at the heart of Lachlan Mcleod’s stirring documentary Clean. She would know more than most.
Forcibly adopted as a child, it created a schism that an expert in reconnecting people with their biological parents later tells her can hang heavy in the mind of an adult, even if taken as a newborn infant. Tragically, she would then endure horrendous abuse and abandonment at the hands of the so-called family that took her in. The physical and emotional scars of this violence were deep. Terrified that history would repeat, Pankhurst later walked away from her own family, leaving two young sons behind. This deepening chasm correlated with a reckoning with her gender identity, eventually leading to Pankhurst transitioning.
More trauma awaited during a stretch of sex work while battling drug and alcohol addiction – but Pankhurst is a survivor, and her determination to move forward with her life constructively led to her establishing Melbourne’s largest dedicated 'trauma cleaning' business.
The compelling subject of Sarah Krasnostein’s award-winning biography The Trauma Cleaner is a force to be reckoned with, one the camera loves. Mcleod wisely strips back the doco to centre on her story and her determination to bring order where there is chaos. A big-hearted woman and plain speaker who is averse to nonsense, Pankhurst threw herself into the often grim aftermath of crime scenes and deceased estates, shouldering the confronting work that would generally be left to grieving families. Restoring homes to something more than a gory incident, she takes survivors into her abundant care.
Her dedicated team also help the living, providing care for people with a physical or mental disability, as well as the complicated business of helping hoarders whose houses are overgrown with overwhelming drifts of detritus, and skitter with the sound of unseen rodents.
Everyone deserves respect, free from judgement, whatever their circumstances, and Pankhurst impresses this priority on her employees – many of whom have also come from difficult circumstances – ensuring they bring love to every job. Their steely and good-humoured drive makes for a riveting doco that, for all its flashes of horror, glows with human kindness. You’ll find yourself willing Pankhurst’s considerable health complications would disappear. It seems too cruel that someone who has endured so much and yet focused her energy on helping others in their direst hours of need, should then face their mortality far too soon.
Clean is no hagiography. As much as Pankhurst’s team, the filmmaker – and us – clearly love this woman who, when she can no longer work, continues to do good via public speaking commitments, Pankhurst is not shy of sharing her faults and her darkest doubts. But she is wise enough to know that we can all do better, for ourselves and others.
The raw honesty with which she opens up to the filmmaker suggests that this 90-minute insight could easily have spun into a miniseries. Forays into the emotional hurdles of her workers, and their clients, don’t get quite as much airtime as perhaps they should. Anyone familiar with Krasnostein’s book will also know that some aspects of Pankhurst’s jaw-dropping story are skipped over a touch too quickly, but what we are privy to is exceptional.
A fitting tribute to a life well lived in spite of the overwhelming odds stacked against her, it is surely a sign of a remarkable woman that we are left wanting more.