Three Lives can be considered part of the wave of non-fiction films that emerged at the initial intersection between the women’s liberation movement and underground filmmaking of the era: The Woman’s Film (San Francisco Newsreel, 1971), Growing Up Female (Jim Klein and Julia Reichert, 1971) and It Happens to Us (Amalie Rothschild, 1972). In 1972 an interview, co-director Louva Irvine recalled that Millett had been inspired by the independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967). Like Portrait of Jason, Three Lives appropriates the sixties’ cinéma vérité aesthetic and the format of the portrait film, but with an end to visually convey the experience of a feminist consciousness-raising session. Since the late 1960s, consciousness-raising groups had become the driving force behind the growing women’s movement and helped set the agenda for feminist activism and theorising. Three Lives can therefore be seen as an cinematic extension of their cell division-like proliferation: its three subjects testify, rap and reflect on their lives as women and their experiences as girls, lovers, wives, mothers, workers and artists. ‘I’ll bet that’s the first time a lot of guys had to sit and listen uninterruptedly to women’, a female film student reportedly remarked following a screening in 1972, ‘I wonder what it means to them to listen to women without having the chance to butt in and have their say!’ (from Julia Lesage’s ‘The Political Aesthetics of Feminist Documentary Film’, 1978).
The film’s collective production methods similarly reflected the emotional instensity of the CR group. Despite not having a clear idea of what working as a collective might mean, Millett has said that at the time, ‘it was my dream to be peers, artists together’ (Flying, 163). For her, ‘the movie will always be the shooting, never that thing on the screen which I made, editing it alone. It will be what we endured together making it, our orgies of recrimmination and recreation’ (167). In a 1972 Filmmaker’s Newsletter interview, co-director Susan Klechner described the successes of this method, in which the group would ‘unite to the point where there would be a huge amount of energy and that would be the creative force. […Where] everybody is connected to the person who is talking about her life. That’s when the film becomes powerful’ (32). However, the process also entailed its fair share of strife; at one point in Flying, Millett described ‘the company’ as ‘a nest of oppressed women screaming at me like machine guns’ (163).
The film opened at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York on 4th November 1971 and was met with mixed reviews from the feminist and mainstream press. New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it ‘a moving, proud, calm, aggressively self-contained documentary feature’ that could not have been made without its all-female crew. On the other hand, Ruth McCormick, writing in the left-leaning film journal Cineaste in 1972, remarked that more militant feminists would be dissapointed by the absence of Millett’s more radical political perspective and the lack of explicitly feminist analysis in the film. Although she continued to work with film intermittently throughout her carrer, Millett revealed in a 1974 interview with French film magazine Cinéma that despite the film’s successes, she belived she was more likely to reach a wider audience through her writing. Nonetheless, feminist film critics such as Julia Lesage have heraled the film an important part of the ‘establish[ment] and valoriz[ation] a new order of cinematic iconography, connotation, and a range of subject matter in the portrayal of women’s lives’ and a key tool for women’s ‘subcultural resistance’.