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SXSW 2022 ‘Clean’ Review: An Empathetic Exploration of Humanity’s Messes

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It is rare to see a career based on something as personal and as empathetic as the work documented in Lachlan Mcleod’s Clean. Part biographical documentary tracking the final years of activist and trauma cleaner Sandra Pankhurst’s life and part exploration of the world of a trauma cleaning company (think the kind of messes so big that you can’t imagine how they would be cleaned up — hoarding, hovels, crime scenes, and so on), Clean is a movie about labors of love.

For the most part, Sandra’s story is central to Clean. We are gradually fed her life story: her traumatic childhood, her experiences as a transgender woman, and her passion for trauma cleaning and its eventual toll on her body, including her terminal battle with the lung disease COPD. Sandra is the ideal documentary subject in so many senses: she’s multidimensional and vibrant, a compelling mix of grit and kindness. The multitude of difficulties she has endured appear only to have served to make her all the more loving, and she seems to have an immensely deep, open-hearted understanding of the way that trauma can powerfully affect us all. In the opening moments of the film, a client skittishly tries to explain and apologize for the state of their home, but Sandra insists lovingly that they have nothing to apologize for — that this work is pleasurable to her. Yet Sandra is also foulmouthed and tough, a self-described “tough old bitch” with a chaotic past and little interest in a traditional nuclear family.

Other portions of Clean are like the kindest, most empathetic version of an episode of Hoarders. Sandra and her team enter homes of those with substance abuse issues, hoarding tendencies, and spaces where people have very recently been killed, and move with a gentle matter-of-factness that is deeply touching. Most of her team seem as kind and compassionate as she is; a frequent sentiment we hear from the group is that we all go through our own struggles and deserve help from other humans, simply because that’s what humans should do.

As the documentary progresses, so too do some of the final chapters of Sandra’s life, with lifelong struggles and losses occasionally rearing their heads. Throughout, we are offered continual snapshots of the people who are taking up her legacy in her wake, working to find a balance between their immense passion for the work and their occasional struggles in handling its potential emotional tolls.

While the attempt to thread the stories of Sandra, those who worked with her, and those who benefitted from her cleans is understandable, it sometimes leaves the story feeling the slightest bit disjointed, with the pacing leaving less time to dig one’s heels into the emotional arc of each story than we might like.

In spite of this, Clean is, above all, a fascinating peek into a career that is likely little-known, yet so worthy of respect and attention. When we think of something as personal and as internal as recovering from trauma, we rarely think about those who have to clean up the physical, literal messes that are so often tied to our worst moments. Clean is a heart-warming slice of humanity that shows good people doing the right thing, simply out of a love for human dignity. It’s a lifestyle worth documenting, celebrating, and sharing. 

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