“Clean” is fascinating and horrifying, sad and inspiring. Lachlan Mcleod‘s documentary about a woman (Sandra Pankhurst) who makes her living in the trauma cleaning business in Australia gives an intimate view of what this world is like while exploring how humans process pain and personal anguish in their quest for love and acceptance.
Illness has forced Sandra away from the cleaning business, something she’s done for decades. Her crew steps in to tidy up hoarder’s homes, meth labs, murder scenes, and places of grisly deaths and suicides. In the process, they often clean the homes of the people society has turned their backs on, like addicts, the mentally ill, and the elderly. Not being able to do what she loves, Sandra decides to finally face the ghosts of her own past and begins to search for her birth mother. It’s a personal journey about the fragility of life and the hope that can be found in human connection.
Mcleod follows along on cleanup jobs and talks to the people doing the work that most of us would never dream of doing. It’s clear that it takes a special kind of person to do the job, as many not only have an iron stomach, but also a strong empathy and understanding of trauma and the human condition. It’s touching to see Sandra’s staff of employees who love what they do simply because they are helping people, especially since she has been forced to retire due to debilitating COPD that developed after years of inhaling pathogens on the job.
There are some bloody and grisly sites that are visited, from a drug house that’s riddled with used needles, to an apartment that’s filled with trash and animal feces, to a home that involved the murder-suicide of a mother and her child.
The most horrific scene in the film is a how-to lesson that serves as an inauguration to new employees. The types of cleaning products and detailed procedures for removing human tissue are nauseating, but it also lends a lot of respect for these people and what they do.
In the past, the family of the deceased had to clean up the scene themselves, which is absolutely awful. Thankfully, there are a few people who have found a calling to step in and do the unimaginable work in instances of suicide, murder, accidents, and more. Mcleod touches on the fact that this type of job affects employees on a deeper level, and Sandra diligently keeps a check on them to make sure her staff remains mentally healthy.
The other part of the documentary shines a light on Sandra, who is now a public speaker. She finds meaning in telling her own life story about being adopted and cast aside by her family, and shares her traumatic past that involves physical abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father. She was thrown out of the house as a kid and lived a life filled with horrible treatment and abandonment. It’s a sad story, especially when it’s revealed that Sandra is transgender, adding yet another dimension to her trauma.
The emotional punch is substantial, and this isn’t a pleasant film to watch. But Mcleod treats his subject with a compassionate lens, and it’s the humanity that makes this documentary so interesting and meaningful.