Premiering as a Special Screening at Cannes was a documentary co-directed by Houda Benyamina, Anne Cissé and subject Melanie Diam’s, the former French rapper and music sensation who stepped away from public life in the early 2010s after converting to Islam. “Salam,” meaning “peace” in Arabic, follows Diam’s new life as a philanthropist and mother, far from the chaos and fame of her past career.

Her new religious path in life was met with vast shock and criticism from the French media at the time, and pushed Diam’s further toward the realization that she needed to abandon her music for good.

Benyamina was reluctant to share the direction of the film at first because of a need to “have my own projects and my own voice,” she says.

“But when Melanie asked me to direct her movie by myself, I told her no. It’s her story and she needs to re-appropriate her own story. It was very important for me to help her because I feel a sense of solidarity toward her as an artist and what they did to her in France was very violent. So to give her my tools to help her re-appropriate her story in her own voice was a political act for me.”

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Houda Benyamina Credit: John Phillips

The film takes a firm stance in favoring the present over the past. No footage of Diam’s performance career appears in the film and the only insights into her troubled history with depression and mental health issues come via personal testimony. “The past doesn’t exist,” says Benyamina. “Today is the present and Melanie wants to live in the present moment. She didn’t want to say why she quit rap music but to focus on how, today, she cares only about offering a message of peace. This really is Melanie’s film and reflects what she wanted to talk about.”

Throughout the film, guest speakers appear as talking heads with only the front of their faces visible against a black background. It’s a stylistic technique that creates the appearance of the speakers wearing the same religious veil as Diam’s, giving the veil a shared, and therefore neutral, role in the documentary. “The choice with the guests was to almost forget the veil and to only be connected by their soul and spirit,” Benyamina explains. “In France, when you see someone with a veil, people forget that it’s a human being and they don’t see a person’s depth.”

The need to re-address perceptions of the veil, especially in France where currently legislation forbids young Muslim girls from wearing the garment, drives “Salam” forward and gives the work a powerful political message.

Despite fearing COVID-related delays to their travel plans for the film, which sees Diam’s visit Mauritius and Mali, Benyamina says that “in the end, the stars aligned. It was like Melanie’s aura, her energy, made it all happen.”

The filmmaker is also grateful for the support of producer Éric Hannezo who, she says, “trusted Melanie’s voice totally” and gave her and Cissé the freedom to take the project where they wanted.

Looking ahead to the film’s reception in France, Benyamina is excited for audiences to reconnect with Diam’s in a new way. “I’m very excited because people still love Melanie and they want to know what happened,” she says.

“I think people miss her and want to see her again.” After the tumult of her younger life and career, “it’s so important for people to see Melanie as just normal,” Benyamina adds.

“She wants to live her life with her children and her religion. It’s ultimately just love and peace.”