Australian documentarian Lachlan McLeod’s Clean is an affecting reflection on the fragility of life, a sobering reminder that many of us at some point have been perched on a precarious ledge just a bad decision or two away from a fall.

But it’s also an uplifting story of resilience, in this case embodied by the spirit, the salty humor and drive of a veteran of the LGBTQ community in her 60s. Sandra Pankhurst doesn’t define herself as a transgender woman, nor as a survivor of child abuse, rape, sex work and drugs. When asked how she’d like to be remembered, she says, “As a kind human being; nothing more, nothing less.”

Pankhurst founded Specialized Trauma Cleaning, a Melbourne-based service company she began running out of her home and van 30 years ago before gradually expanding to a warehouse space and large crew as it became the biggest subcontracted crime-scene cleanup service in the state of Victoria.

Homicides, suicides, drug busts, deaths, hoarding, squalor and infestation, sometimes decades of neglect — all are a regular part of STC’s workday: “All the shitty jobs that no one really wants to do,” says Sandra. Because her own experiences have acquainted her intimately with trauma, she sees her profession as a way to ease the suffering of others, approaching even the most horrendous situations without judgment.

‘Clean’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

She’s candid and plain-spoken, empathizing with people who look at their surroundings in despair and say, “My life’s fucked,” leaving family members, or sometimes the state, to deal with the chaos. The same compassion extends to the rigorously trained staff Sandra refers to as ninjas, many of whom have their own history of trauma and approach the job as a way back from struggle. The film makes eloquent points about how quickly misfortune can crescendo and take control of a life, irrespective of demographic.

McLeod and co-editor Louis Dai balance parallel threads — visits by STC workers to hair-raising cleaning sites; and Sandra’s personal history, including her health issues with a severe respiratory illness acquired through working with toxic chemicals without PPE in her early days on the job.

When doctors insist she can no longer participate in cleans — “If I get sick, I can go down like a bag of shit,” she explains — Sandra reluctantly puts the company in the hands of her staff, turning her attention to motivational speaking to help people navigate adversity.

The glimpses into the damaged lives behind several cleans are intercut with access to the STC workers’ own backgrounds, also showing how they decompress and take care of their mental health after days of wading through pathogens and dodging used needles.

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It’s not until almost a half-hour into the film that McLeod begins to peel back the layers on Sandra’s life story. She was given up by her birth mother for adoption, but then while still a boy, rejected by her adoptive family after they had biological children. Unfairly punished for her half-siblings’ transgressions and forced to sleep outside in a bungalow, she grew malnourished and prone to infections. Neighbors saved her from being stabbed by the alcoholic, abusive father.

Marriage and an attempt to live a “normal” life followed, but Sandra says she despised herself and feared becoming like her adoptive father. Despite being, by her own admission, psychologically ill-equipped for parenthood, she had two children, who remain absent from the film aside from a brief postscript. She was divorced in the late ‘70s on the grounds of homosexuality, but gay bars felt foreign to her until “a light went on in my head” after learning of transgender hormone treatments.

Sandra became a drag performer while transitioning, working under the name “Celestial Star,” but also popping opioids and “turning tricks like a circus act.” It took being raped to jolt her out of prostitution, after which she remarried, this time as a woman. No matter how many rough turns her past has taken, Sandra believes strongly in remaining positive. “Life dishes you out a good story and then life dishes you out a shit one,” she says with a shrug.

She brings that same positivity, albeit cautiously, when she’s contacted by an agency that specializes in reconnecting adopted children with their birth parents. The film digs into the issues of abandonment and grief that are often glossed over in stories of unwanted children finding “forever homes.” It also touches on the difficult circumstances common in the 1950s and ‘60s, when young mothers were often coerced into giving up their children or told they had died during birth.

The outcome of the agency’s search doesn’t quite hand McLeod the ideal resolution for a documentary maker, nor does the interruption of COVID lockdown in 2020. But both provide further evidence of Sandra’s unbreakable humanity as she absorbs life’s knocks with pragmatism and without sentimentality.

“Every dog has its day, and a mongrel has two,” remarks Pankhurst of her rising fame while promoting Sarah Krasnostein’s 2018 book about her, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay and Disaster.

McLeod pays warm tribute to her many lives, good and bad, and while the film could have done without the dramatic recreations of crime scenes and dark moments from Sandra’s childhood, it does make restrained use of Patrick Grigg’s lovely melodic score. Clean is a remarkable character study with a final chapter that will leave you deeply moved.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Features)
Production companies: Walking Fish, Good Thing, in association with SBS Australia
Director: Lachlan McLeod
Producers: David Elliot-Jones, Charlotte Wheaton
Executive producers: Nick Batzias, Virginia Whitwell, Thorsten Schumacher
Director of photography: Louis Dai
Music: Patrick Grigg
Editors: Lachlan McLeod, Louis Dai
Sales: Rocket Science