Shaina Watrous ’14, director of a documentary about Ajeet Singh, center, listens to a child in Varanasi, India.
Azza Cohen ’16
Former bridge-year students in India film documentary on ‘real-life hero’
Shaina Watrous ’14, director of a documentary about Ajeet Singh, center, listens to a child in Varanasi, India.
Shaina Watrous ’14, director of a documentary about Ajeet Singh, center, listens to a child in Varanasi, India.
Azza Cohen ’16

Four students who took part in Princeton’s bridge-year program in India returned there during the summer to film a documentary called Specks of Dust about one man’s fight against sex trafficking.

Three of the students had worked during their gap year for Guria Sansthan, an organization founded by Ajeet Singh 20 years ago in the red-light district of Varanasi to help women and children escape prostitution and sex slavery. 

The organization provides legal assistance, rescues minors in the sex trade, finances vocational training for women, and conducts public-awareness campaigns as well as art-therapy and other programs for the children of sex workers. It also helps children enter mainstream schools. Guria’s efforts have led to death threats against Singh and his family.

“When you look at what Ajeet is doing, you get a much fuller picture of the problem of sex trafficking in India and a more realistic way of solving that problem,” said Shaina Watrous ’14, the film’s director. As participants in the bridge-year program, Watrous and three other members of the Specks of Dust team — Azza Cohen ’16, Lizzie Martin ’14, and Katie Horvath ’15 — had deferred their enrollment and spent nine months performing community service in India. 

After their bridge-year experience, Watrous said, “we had a duty to these kids we’d been working with and to the organization as a whole to come back and spread the message.”

Watrous said the impact Singh has had on the community — women now feel comfortable seeking him out for advice, for help with financial problems, and to pursue education for their daughters — is “the only kind of change that will really be lasting after hundreds of years of this tradition” of sex trafficking. 

The Specks of Dust project was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace, created by the late philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis w’30 to support student summer projects that increase global understanding. The students hope to raise money to bring Singh and his family to view the film’s premiere at Princeton, planned for next spring. 

Watrous took a documentary film course last fall, and Cohen, the film’s producer, took a spring course with Purcell Carson, the editor of the Oscar-winning documentary Smile Pinki, which also was filmed in Varanasi. Though the two students found themselves looking up how-to videos on YouTube for filming tips while in India, after a month Watrous had filmed enough footage to create a 40-minute documentary. 

Because of the pace of the work, the students refer to their month of filming as a “turbo” bridge year; setbacks ranged from losing a tripod to monsoons and to Cohen and Watrous both testing positive for typhoid. Cohen remained upbeat about the project, however: “I am very lucky to know a real-life hero, and now I have the opportunity to introduce him, on film, to a wide audience of people.” 

Horvath brought film into the curriculum of the art-therapy program at the Guria center, teaching film basics to the children, and Watrous hopes that some of their footage will make its way into the documentary. 

Martin is editing the film, along with Maxson Jarecki ’16, son of documentary filmmaker Andrew Jarecki ’85, and a rough cut was expected this month. 

The name for the film comes from a nugget of wisdom Singh references frequently: “The day you understand that you are only a speck of dust is the day you’ll start living your life properly.”